Maddy Prespakis just seemed to be popping up everywhere last weekend.
On Friday night, in the AFLW season opener, the 2019 rising star was comfortably the best player on the ground as Carlton beat Richmond handily at Princes Park.
She won the ball 21 times, kicked a goal, stuck tackles and was at the very heart of the Blues’ fluid and composed ball movement. As usual, the 19-year-old worked herself into the ground.
Which probably explains the surprise you may have felt when, at half-time of Saturday afternoon’s match in Blacktown between GWS and Gold Coast, Prespakis suddenly showed up on your TV.
Lactic acid and a sleep-in be damned, Prespakis had been up with the sparrows to catch a 6:00am flight to Sydney so she could watch her partner, Serene Watson, make her debut for the Suns.
It’s one of those uniquely AFLW stories that makes investment in this league so worthwhile, but it also told you something about Prespakis herself. She’s an all-in kind of person, willing to get her hands dirty in a game or to wake up at 4:00am the day after to catch a plane in equal measure.
On top of that, she’s also exceptionally talented.
Prespakis stands out on the football field for the grace with which she moves, the intelligence of the positions she takes up and the assuredness of her skills. Comparisons to the male players are admittedly lazy and probably unhelpful, but there’s a bit of Sam Mitchell in her game — albeit a younger Sam Mitchell who really enjoyed tackling.
In other words, she is a natural footballer. And with each passing year, the AFLW is only going to see more of her kind.
Prespakis’s generation is among the first to profit from a lifetime of organised football and structured development. These are players who started their footy lives as young girls and were nurtured and encouraged through a number of pathways, not pinballed around through other sports and boys’ teams.
Carlton coach Daniel Harford put it better.
“This is now a time where young girls who have played the game since they were eight or 10 are now getting a look at this level and they come in as natural footballers,” Harford said after Carlton’s win last week.
“They’re not girls who play footy, they’re footballers who just happen to be girls.
“This is the generation that’s starting that, so it is pretty exciting.”
See also, Nina Morrison’s clearance craft at the base of a pack, or Monique Conti’s clean hands and explosiveness out of a contest or Lucy McEvoy’s aerial prowess.
It wasn’t always obvious to the eye during round one, but it’s this influx of skilled youth that has driven the standard of AFLW up exponentially. Where once players like Katie Brennan, Darcy Vescio and Daisy Pearce stood out like pros stepping down a level, now the league’s established stars are being challenged and even usurped.
There will be challenges to this. Expansion will naturally dilute the talent pool, and no club can rely completely on a squad of teenagers anyway. Experience in this league remains valuable, as does size, and we are yet to see quite the same boost in young key position talent as we have in midfielders.
But there is more than enough evidence to suggest the women’s game is in good young hands already, with the risings stars of the comp now barely requiring any time to rise at all.
At the front of that pack is Prespakis. She’s not a household name yet in the manner of Erin Phillips or Tayla Harris, but she will be.
In a feature for the AFLW website in preseason, expert Sarah Black placed Prespakis at number 23 on her list of best players in the league. By the end of this season, expect her to be somewhere closer to the top 10. At least.
The only thing stopping her from dominating the league for a decade is the next wave, as yet undiscovered but still coming, even more prepared than this one.
At least we know Prespakis won’t be afraid of the hard work and early starts required to fend them off.