Srhoj’s “unreal” rise to top AFLW draft talent

“UNREAL” was the best word Kaitlyn Srhoj could think of when describing her experiences with the AFL Women’s Academy, and running out in the Under 17s Futures match last year.

“Me at the age of 13 would never have thought I would be here right now in the AFLW Academy,” Srhoj said ahead of her state’s first championships match last month.

“It’s literally insane, but I think we just get treated like professionals and when we go over there, we are professionals. We are all there for the same goal, we all want to get drafted, we all have the same intent.”

Srhoj is a popular player down in the Mandurah region south of Perth, where she has plied her trade as an up-and-coming talent for Peel Thunder in the WAFL Women’s. Initially a basketballer, Srhoj took up football as a 14-year-old and then the native code took number one priority, as an ankle injury put a line through her hoops hopes.

“My journey started more socially,” Srhoj said. “I got asked to join a local team with a few friends and decided I could actually kick a ball, which is pretty rare back then. I got picked up by a Peel Development squad. Then from there I got scouted by state and it all took off.

“I Played Rogers (Cup) one year for Peel Thunder, then the following year did my ankle playing basketball so I was juggling both basketball and footy at a high level, but after that injury it ruled me out of basketball, now I’m here.”

Conceding she “didn’t find the love” for Aussie rules as a young child, Srhoj missed out on the traditional pathway that others have experienced that included coming through Auskick and playing alongside the boys. Though in hindsight she wishes she had, Srhoj would not give up her current position for anything.

After playing for Peel and missing out on a flag due to injury a couple of years back, Srhoj stepped up in her bottom-age season last year to be a strong performing winger for the Thunder.

It earned her a place in the West Australian Under 18s squad, and off the back of that national carnival and an MVP in the Under 17s Futures game, Srhoj looms as one of the most exciting prospects in this year’s draft.

“I think coming from Peel to State to Academy, that jump in intensity is huge,” Srhoj said. “I like that intensity, I like that drive, I like the better competition and pressure. I really thrive off that. It’s a really good environment to role and blossom and get the best out of yourself, without any pressure as well.

“You’re allowed to make mistakes, Tarkyn (Lockyer, AFLW Academy head coach), he doesn’t care, he wants to get the best out of you and if making mistakes is that process, then that’s it.”

An Eagles fan growing up, Srhoj has watched as Peel teammates, Ella Roberts, Jaide Britton and Kate Bartlett all got drafted into the gold and blue.

“It’s helped me a lot in my journey in a way because they started out just as me,” Srhoj said. “I think I’ve learnt a lot specifically through Jaide and Ella, me playing a similar role to Jaide as well, they’ve been really good mentors for me.

“I did the State Under 18s last year with Ella and we blossomed a really good friendship and it’s taken off from there. I think it’s good to take advice and experience from them as well.”

Srhoj predominantly played off a wing for Peel Thunder last season, but her time on-ball for the Under 17s Futures match gave herself a different perspective on her football. Though she never saw herself as an inside midfielder previously, admitted that best-on performance for her side, allowed her to believe in herself more that she could step into the contest.

“As much as I love playing on the wing because I get to use my strengths – being my endurance and my running and my athletic ability – I think after my Futures game, I was chucked inside mid and did not get taken off, so I got to still use my athletic ability but then work my way into getting my own ball,” Srhoj said.

“Playing on the wing you wait for the ball to come to you, and being a smaller body, not as mature as some players I know such as Jaime Henry, I never really thought I was an inside mid player because I wasn’t strong enough. But after that Academy game, it opened my eyes up to play there and I think at this stage I am really liking the inside a little bit more to the wing. It’s something different and I do like winning my own ball.”

The saying goes that you are your own harshest critic, and that could not ring truer for Srhoj who describes herself as a “really mental person” who is trying to be less harsh on herself.

“I get really mentally in my head, and if I don’t get a clean first touch, it really screws up my whole game,” Srhoj said. “If I get a good, clean first touch, I think that will really improve my game. I think being mentally fit comes with experience as well.

“My game’s not perfect, and I don’t think anyone is the finished product yet, even in the AFL. I think for me, it would be transitioning from inside mid, getting my own ball and that first hard ground ball is really key for me specifically”

Wanting to be perfect is nothing new to aspiring AFL Women’s players, with Srhoj understanding that she is still in a phase of learning the game, and that taking advice from those closest to her helps.

“I’m only young, and haven’t played that much footy compared to the AFLW players,” Srhoj said. “But I think maybe not being so hard on myself. For me having that close inside group that I can lean on for support and not worry about external voices, because that really affects my performance during games, that’s all I’m thinking about, I’m not really thinking about my footy. Besides groundballs, mental fitness, maybe a bit of overhead marking, but pretty much all the fundamentals.”

Outside of football, Srhoj is just focused on completing her Year 12 studies and getting a good ATAR in order to study medicine at University. As a person who likes to look into the future, the “motivated and driven” talent is determined to make the most out of life on and off the field.

In terms of her draft nomination, naturally she would love to don the gold and blue of her Eagles, but said at the same time she was “open minded”. Admitting it was a “really hard conversation” to have about the potential of moving interstate, she would assess her options closer to the end of the year.

“I will maybe think about it at the end of the year depending on what goes on outside of football,” Srhoj said. “I’m really open minded at the moment, especially coming back from the AFLW Academy. We trained at really lovely facilities such as Collingwood, St Kilda, Geelong and Essendon. They’re just footy fanatic over there so I’m really open minded.”

As for her 2023 goals, Srhoj is just focusing on playing the best footy she can in order to reach her ultimate end goal of being drafted.

“That’s been a goal since I’ve started footy, but I think you want to take small goals and be satisfied until you get to an end goal as that is really far away,” Srhoj said. “Just getting through this national championships to be honest. It’s a really, really long tournament, and a really long building blocks of training, but I think just putting 100 per cent into those games and see where that takes me.”

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