‘Beyond our expectations’: Three Benalla products selected in AFLW draft

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Officially a Blue Bagger: Keeley Skepper is presented a Carlton jumper by coach Daniel Harford on AFLW draft night. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Photos Photo by Michael Willson

Benalla featured prominently in Wednesday night’s AFLW Draft, as three of its exports had their footballing dreams realised.

Benalla’s Keeley Skepper was the first local to have her name read out, going to Carlton at pick 17, before fellow Benalla exports Sophia McCarthy and Cassidy Mailer were snatched up by North Melbourne with picks 39 and 54.

Euroa cricketing prodigy turned up-and-coming football talent Georgia Gall then rounded out the night for the GV, going to Melbourne with pick 72.

Meanwhile, Madison Gray, despite not being picked up in the draft, has been recognised by Essendon as one to watch and has been offered a training spot with the Bombers this season.

Skepper, McCarthy, Mailer and Gray are all graduates of the Murray Bushrangers development program, while Gall’s journey to the AFLW was a little different having played cricket for Women’s Big Bash League franchise Melbourne Stars before making the switch to football.

Following what was a big night for the Murray Bushrangers, assistant coach Mario De Santa-Ana said it was a thrill to see so many local products achieve their AFLW dream.

“It has been a good year in terms of AFLW listings and we have just been really rapt with how all our girls went about it through the season,” De Santa-Ana said.

“This result probably goes beyond our expectations from the start of the year, starting with our total representation in Victoria Country to Keeley Skepper being All Australian and MVP.

“To now have four of our girls (including Lavington’s Zarlie Goldsworthy) get picked in the AFLW draft it is just unbelievable.”

Coming into draft night, Skepper was almost a guarantee to be selected after a dominant 2022 season, while the future of McCarthy and Mailer was a bit more unclear.

“We thought both Sophia and Cassidy were a chance going into the night, but you just never know,” De Santa-Ana said.

“We had received a bit of interest late for Cassidy given her story of missing a lot of football leading into this year, with her running ability and skill set really impressing recruiters.

“While with Sophia we always thought she had the potential and size to play key position at a higher level, and I think her performances in the VFLW with Williamstown this year topped her up.”

Now set for the rigours of professional football, De Santa Ana explained the attributes he believed would put the girls in good stead as they embarked on their AFLW careers.

“Keeley without a doubt will bring a high level endurance married up with a highly competitive nature and excellent skills that will have an instant impact in the AFLW,” he said.

“Cassidy brings an excellent skillset to the game with her marking and kicking, so she will slot nicely into more of an outside role.

“They probably picked Sophia up as a tall forward, with the ability to go back, but without a doubt contested marking is her weapon and will become a great focal point in attack for North Melbourne.”

As for the program itself, a result like this is incredibly satisfying, with the constant mantra of the Murray Bushrangers coaches being the number one focus was development.

De Santa-Ana said nights like this reinforced the hours of hard work and dedication they put in to helping up-and-coming football prospects.

“It just verifies why you do what you do and vindication for the hard work all the coaches put into developing the programs we put in place for the girls,” he said.

“This shows that what we are doing is working and as a coach it certainly puts a smile on your face to see this group of girls achieve their dreams.”