After swallowing the bitter pill that was the cancellation of the 2020 AFLW finals series, the North Melbourne Tasmanian Kangaroos returned in 2021 ready to fight tooth and nail for a premiership once again.
With new coach Darren Crocker at the helm North finished the home and away season in sixth with a 6-3 record, showing its ability to compete with the best teams in the competition.
The season was full of storylines only AFLW football can provide. Jas Garner and Ash Riddell somehow took their games to new heights, Daisy Bateman and Tahlia Randall experienced breakout seasons, Jess Duffin made her long-awaited return to the game and Georgia Hammond booted a goal in a dream debut at the age of 28.
Through the highs and lows of the season, Emma Kearney’s inspiring and measured leadership remained a constant, as she once again stood up as not only one of the competition’s best players, but one of its best characters as well.
Despite suffering heartbreak in the qualifying final, losing to Collingwood by just six points, Kearney says the entire team could hold their heads high.
“We showed glimpses of how good a side we can really be … I’m really proud of the effort we put in on the weekend,” the North skipper said.
“Collingwood has probably been the best side in the competition all season. For us to take it to them was really pleasing … but unfortunately that’s just how sport goes sometimes.”
Despite having never coached AFLW in any capacity prior to the season, Crocker brought a wealth of experience and a new game plan to an already dangerous North side.
With a full season of adapting to Crocker’s game plan under its belt, Kearney says this North side will be an even more dangerous opponent next season.
“Crock's been brilliant since he came in. He’s created a really fun environment for us to play our footy … I’ve really enjoyed my footy this year and a lot of that is down to him,” she said.
“His experience within the game and in coaching has produced so much development in our playing list.
“It’s quite challenging to implement a new game plan with such a short pre-season … we’ll keep targeting that development … continue to build on what we’ve been able to produce and hopefully be even better next year.”
With high-achieving senior players like Garner, Kearney, Riddell and Emma King earning All-Australian nominations, the quality of young players emerging through North’s list is often overlooked.
Draftee Bella Eddey played every game of the season and only improved as time progressed, second-year players Ellie Gavalas and Mia King continued to establish themselves within an all-star midfield, Bateman and Randall earned nominations for the 22under22 side, while Brooke Brown and Alice O’Loughlin also got their first tastes of AFLW football over the course of the season.
Kearney says she’s looking forward to not only seeing these young stars take the next steps in their football careers, but she is also eager to see the side recruit even more exciting young players.
“Overall, we need to get the girls comfortable at playing that higher level of football, and making sure they feel valued and like they can contribute to the team,” Kearney said.
“Hopefully we can get even more young players through the draft and filter them in.
“It’s an honour to be in this leadership position … I’m really excited for what the future holds.”