Dandenong Stingrays teammates Hunter Clark and Tom De Koning have shared the journey to under-age football’s elite level.
The pair may be opposite types of players, but they’ve been together from their first years of junior football at Mount Martha to the TAC Cup, the NAB AFL Academy and now the starting Vic Country team for Round 1 of the 2017 NAB AFL U18 Championships.
186cm Clark made three appearances for Country at the 2016 U18 Championships and averaged 16 disposals per game in 12 TAC Cup matches for Dandenong playing mostly across half back.
He’s spent more time as an inside midfielder in 2017, averaging 27 disposals and six tackles per game in six matches for the fifth-placed Stingrays. The skilful, smooth-moving 18-year-old had 21 disposals and five tackles in Country’s 12-point victory over the Allies in Blacktown, NSW two weeks ago.
201cm De Koning, meanwhile, burst onto TAC Cup watchers’ radars with a nine-straight-goal best-on-ground performance in Dandenong’s big victory over the Northern Knights in Round 6 last year.
He went on to kick 17 goals in 11 TAC Cup games in 2016 and was subsequently added to the AFL Academy’s Level Two (top-age) squad alongside existing Academy member Clark. Mobile and a strong mark, the 17-year-old key forward/ruck has booted 15 goals in eight games this year and slotted an important major during Country’s final-term comeback against the Allies.
But like many others, the journey of both players to the heights of national representative football had its start at humble grassroots level.
“I’ve been playing with Hunter since U10s at Mount Martha,” De Koning said earlier this year. “We get lifts with each other to pretty much every training session at the moment and always have. We also go to the same school, Padua College.
“We were in a few junior grand finals but just couldn’t get a flag which was a bit disappointing. Hunter’s an amazing player and it was good to play with him in the midfield. I was playing a lot of ruck and just tapping it down to him.
“He’s always been up there (as a player) – one of the best I’ve seen play.”
De Koning and Clark look set to continue Mount Martha’s enviable recent record of producing high-quality AFL draftees.
“(Carlton’s no.1 NAB AFL Draft pick in 2015) Jacob Weitering and (GWS’ no.1 pick in 2012) Lachie Whitfield came through the club,” Clark said earlier this year. “(Hawthorn’s) Billy Hartung played a few years there and (Sydney’s) Nic Newman was there too.
“We hadn’t really had any draftees until five years ago and now we’ve got four in the AFL.
“Tom and (other current Dandenong teammates) Oliver Walsh and Angus Paterson have also come through Mount Martha. In juniors we never won a flag, but Tom and I have both been lucky enough to get picked in the Level Two AFL Academy, so it’s pretty good to go through that with someone you’ve shared all your footy experiences with.”
De Koning’s father Terry – who played 31 AFL games for Footscray from 1980-82 – has been an influence on both his son’s and Clark’s football, coaching them for several years of their junior careers.
“He’s definitely had the most impact on my football out of anyone,” De Koning said of his father. “He coached me for probably four years out of the six or seven junior seasons I played.
“He’s taught me how to play ruck and he’s had the AFL experience, so I’ve looked up to him since I was a kid. I didn’t have any problems with him being my coach. My younger brother Sam didn’t really like it – he thought he was getting favoured too much, but I never really got that. I was just one of the other players.
“If he gave the team a spray I’d feel a bit embarrassed, but it wasn’t too bad. I was able to talk to him about how I played and it was good having him in the car before the game to pump me up and get me focused.”
Clark has focused on improving his performances at this year’s U18 Championships after a 2016 campaign in which he “wanted to play a bit better” than he did.
With fellow AFL Academy midfielders Luke Davies-Uniacke (Dandenong), Paddy Dow (Bendigo Pioneers) and James Worpel (Geelong Falcons) – as well as good mate De Koning – in Country’s line-up, Clark again has the chance to test himself alongside the nation’s best young talent.
“It was pretty unbelievable,” Clark said of his 2016 Championships experience. “The pace of the game was like no other I’ve played in.
“A lot of the players I played with or against are now on AFL lists, so it was a bit of an eye-opener that (your top-age year) is really a big year and that you’ve got to put your best foot forward at the Championships. You’re up against the best kids in the country and you’ve got to make a statement.”