Mackenzie Eardley is one of the top prospects heading into the next AFLW Draft. (Photo: Dandenong Stingrays Instagram/Will Cuckson)

Dandenong co-captain Mackenzie Eardley has elevated herself to be one of the best prospects heading into the next AFLW draft.

Mackenzie Eardley has always found herself to be a cut above the rest in sporting terms.

The Dandenong Stingrays co-captain has impressed so far this season in the NAB League Girls competition, propelling the club to this weekend’s Grand Final against the Western Jets.

The Beleura junior has always had a love for the Sherrin, commencing her footy journey at the Demons alongside fellow future Stingray Willow Argus.

“At first, footy was something I only dreamed of playing because that’s what my brothers did and I wanted to play on the cold Sunday mornings rather than just watch,” said Eardley when speaking to The Inner Sanctum.

“I tried to play with the boys early on but my dad never let me so I was so lucky the following year a girls league was started.

“I started playing with Willow Argus, so she introduced me to Beleura Junior Football Club. I naturally fell in love with it but I still had netball which I played equally as much, if not more at the time.”

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Despite continuing on with netball throughout childhood, it was the ovals of the Mornington Peninsula rather than the courts on which Eardley would truly make a name for herself.

After routinely standing out for Beleura, the club where St Kilda’s Ash Richards also rose through the ranks, the Stingrays came calling.

Making her debut for the club in 2020, she never looked back, cementing her spot in the side that she made her own from then on.

“Matt Crozier had guided me into the Stingrays program but it was made official through an email of my selection. Every team was just a stepping stone to that point and I had the people and support to back me to get there.

“My debut game for Stingrays was probably where I realised that [playing in the AFLW] could actually happen.

“I got in the NAB League Team of the Week from that game and that just got the idea in my head that it could actually happen.

“From there, once COVID had taken a step back a bit, I realised the opportunities I had to make something out of this sport, and I slowly got more and more recognised for what I was putting out there.”

Eardley was then selected in the VIC Country team for the 2021 NAB AFLW Under-17 Championships, before she was again selected the following year as a top-ager.

This honour is not lost on Eardley, who recognises this as a major milestone on the way to achieving her dream.

“Being selected for VIC Country is an amazing honour, to be selected as a top player in the state’s country regions was a privilege and beyond exciting as you could play alongside and against the best.

“I got selected in the U19s Championships last year as a bottom ager, and the shock of my selection was definitely the feeling in the moment.

“Once you get to the camps and really get amongst it, you get to see the talent you are surrounded by, and to know that you are a part of that talent pool, it’s such a great feeling that it’s hard to describe.

Early last month, Eardley was named in the AFLW Academy alongside fellow Dandenong co-captain Amber Clarke, coached by former Collingwood stalwart Tarkyn Lockyer.

Despite naming this as the highlight of her career so far, she remained aware of the fact that premiership glory in the NAB League Girls competition would usurp that should she hold the cup aloft next week.

“I’d say that being told by Tarkyn that I was chosen to be a part of the AFLW Academy has been a highlight, if not the highlight of my career so far.

“Apart from being drafted, it is one of the highest honours and I was speechless.

However, I hope with the finals this will change and the Stingrays can pull through and win a premiership.”

The 18-year old finished her schooling in November, graduating from Balcombe Grammar School in Mount Martha.

If selected in the next NAB AFLW Draft, Eardley would become the first graduate of the school to play at the game’s highest level in the school’s 15-year history, male or female.

“It would be crazy as it really shows how rare it is to be drafted.

“It doesn’t happen to many and to be the first at Balcombe, I would be honoured.

“I just hope that it inspires the younger kids to continue to strive towards their dreams, no matter what they are, because anyone can do it if they want it enough.”

“The teachers made it surreal. I was walking into maths class and being asked by my teacher if I was drafted yet, and my biology teacher always asked when it was going to happen.

“All my teachers were beyond understanding of my training schedule with homework and assignments, and without their flexibility, I wouldn’t have been able to make it as far as I have.”

With the next AFLW season slated to start in August, Eardley advocated for the season to be switched from summer to winter, citing both club unity and temperature as supporting reasons.

“I think it is bound to happen where two AFLW seasons go back to back in order to get the game back to winter.

“In this situation, I believe the pros outweigh the cons. The players won’t play in 30°C heat, which will provide a better quality performance as a whole.

“The games will be in line with the men which will provide a greater audience as the clubs will seem more as one, rather than for example the men’s North Melbourne team and the women’s North Melbourne team being separate in a way.

“It will be tough for the players who played this season just gone to balance with their outside jobs as still part-time athletes to go through another season so close to the last, however I still believe that in the long-term, the game will very much benefit from the August start.”

Eardley’s Stingrays will take on the Western Jets in the 2022 NAB League Girls Grand Final this Friday night, with the bounce at 7:10pm.

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