23/05/2024

Melbourne has built a wealth of depth in its AFLW side in 2022. (Photo: AFL)

The Melbourne Demons have become known for the star power bursting at the seams within their AFLW team.

There’s a number of names the football world has come to know fondly. Daisy Pearce, Tayla Harris, Lauren Pearce, Karen Paxman, Lily Mithen, Libby Birch – and that’s just scratching the surface.

Over the past two seasons, the way that Demons have added and added to what was previously a strong group has been nothing short of monumental.

Many players have had their praises sung already across the season so far. The deadly combination that Eliza West and Olivia Purcell have formed in the midfield is second to very few, and a big part why the Demons are well and truly in premiership contention.

But below these names are the youngsters that are turning themselves into not just best 22 players, but some of the best in their respective positions.

The backline in particular is one of the big areas that has seen improvement from the youthful brigade.

Shelley Heath has always been a lockdown small defender that has flown under the radar. But in season seven, the heights she’s reaching are becoming too great to ignore.

She moved from half back into the middle in the second half against Essendon on Sunday, taking on a tagging match-up on star midfielder Maddy Prespakis, which she performed superbly in.

Heath finished with 13 disposals and seven tackles, while holding Prespakis to just three clearances for the game.

“The second quarter we were under the pump a bit… but second half I was pleased with the team’s intensity and competitiveness,” coach Mick Stinear said post-game.

“Maddy is a really quality player. She was not necessarily hurting us as much at clearance and stoppage, it was more the secondary stoppages and transition.

“Shelley, her ability to be able to go with her on transition and outside stoppages and bring her own game as well, she’s such an exciting young player with great speed. She’s got a little bit more boldness this season.”

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The addition of Maeve Chaplin into the line-up has given Stinear the freedom to push a player like Heath up the ground as a tagger, or allow Sarah Lampard to roam on the wing.

A top-ager last season, Chaplin was picked up by the Dees as an injury replacement player ahead of season six, developing gradually with Casey in the VFLW.

She’s now become a permanent fixture of the backline, playing all but one game.

“I think [with Chaplin’s] competitiveness, she’s such a tough, physical defender,” Stinear said.

“I thought the back five or six including the one on the bench did a really good job.

“Maeve’s physicality and growth as a defender has been excellent over the last couple of months.”

The other key piece of Melbourne’s defensive DNA has been 190cm full-back Tahlia Gillard.

Earning a Rising Star nomination for her performance, she kept Essendon skipper Bonnie Toogood goalless after she had six scoring shots across her past two games.

Gillard finished the game with a respectable nine disposals for 251 metres gained and two tackles of her own, limiting her opponent aerially to just two marks.

Still just 18 years of age, she’s playing a huge role in a side well and truly in flag contention.

“Tahlia Gillard – who’s been a key defender as an 18-year-old all season – I thought she’s been outstanding,” Stinear said.

With their eighth win from nine outings, the Dees have all but secured themselves a home qualifying final, as they sit a game and nearly 70 per cent clear of third placed Adelaide.

They’ll have one final chance to move to outright first as they face West Coast in Round 10, while ladder leaders Brisbane play Collingwood.

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