Draft hopeful Jake Soligo has already learned from some of the best in the footy world. (Photo: AFL)

Eastern Ranges best and fairest winner and draft hopeful Jake Soligo has learned to lean on the valuable experience of his mentors in the lead up to the AFL Draft.

The month of November has been nothing but a ‘waiting process’ for draft hopeful Jake Soligo.

A prolific ball-winner, the Eastern Ranges youngster has been biding his time in what has been a long, but interrupted year of underage football.

He’s a dogged midfielder with the smarts to match his tenacity in the contest. The 18-year-old grew into his game as the year progressed, only dropping below 25 disposals once in his last four NAB League matches.

Soligo is accustomed to hitting the scoreboard too, kicking four goals in seven games.

In a year where opportunity to get on field was limited, patience has been key. Learning under his new coach at the Ranges, the youngster says he’s learned just as much mentally as physically.

There are few who speak poorly of Travis Cloke, the coach. The crop of both Ranges boys and girls under his guidance all seem to leave his system a better player, and a better person.

“I thought [he] came into the role really well,” Soligo told Yarra Valley FM’s The Sport of Cloke.

“I think he felt comfortable, and all the boys felt really comfortable around him. I was really impressed by how they went and we went as well.

“[He taught us about] off the ground stuff like mental health and what he’s been through after footy. All the challenges he’s been through.”

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That waiting game has now gone on for nearly four months, since the Ranges played their last game against the Dandenong Stingrays at the start of August.

Luckily for Soligo he starred in his last chance to impress recruiters. He came away pleased with his performance, with 24 touches, 10 marks, three inside 50s and a goal.

Putting all of the nerves and anxiety of the month aside has been a challenge, but one that has benefitted from the openness that Cloke shows all of his players.

“This whole month is just a waiting process now… I’ve taken a few things onboard from him [Cloke],” Soligo said.

“In terms of having the month where it’s just been nervously waiting, [I’m] trying to control my mind and trying not to think about it and just enjoy the process.”

He’ll have the benefit of enjoying the lead-up alongside two of his closest mates.

“Tyler Sonsie is probably my best mate, so we catch up a lot, go for kicks. We train together… Tyreece [Leiu] as well, all those boys I’m pretty close with.”

Leiu, a 194cm versatile player, can play either through the midfield as a contested ball-winner or an intercept marker in defence. He and Soligo have both been estimated to be selected in the third round or beyond.

Sonsie meanwhile has received praise all year long for his silky skills, but continues to draw doubts over a nagging knee injury.

A golden VFL opportunity

Like many prospects this year, Soligo had the chance to play a game of VFL against AFL-listed players.

He lined up with Richmond against the GWS Giants, going head-to-head with Nick Shipley (28 disposals, seven tackles, three clearances) and fellow likely draftee Josh Fahey (24 disposals, six marks, four inside 50s).

While Soligo didn’t get the chance to train alongside the likes of Dustin Martin and Dion Prestia, he found even more valuable lessons from the VFL-listed players.

“It was unreal,” he said.

“Playing with AFL players and VFL-listed players as well, you learn a lot off them. I only got to train with the VFL boys, but I learned a lot off Steve Morris.

“You’re not going to be able to outmuscle them, so you’ve just got to find other ways to beat them at the contest.”

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Through all the interruptions, the midfielder claimed the Pennington Medal as the Eastern Ranges’ best and fairest player in 2021.

“It’s a pretty good honour, getting a bit of reward for effort. I’m pretty pumped up about it,” Soligo said.

Though he hasn’t played much competitive footy in the past 18 months, the attitude and mental fortitude that has built up shines through.

“Last year I didn’t play at all, so having that constant pre-season… always training but never getting to play games, it was pretty frustrating,” he admitted.

“This year we got to play a few games, which I was really excited about, I was putting the work in. It’s frustrating, but what can you do? Everyone’s in the same boat.

“You just have to keep moving forward and keep a positive attitude.”

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