By: JESS WEBSTER
Round 10 Rising Star Nominee: Matt Vardanega
Matt Vardanega’s journey to his senior football debut began three years ago in Merimbula on the Sapphire Coast in southern New South Wales.
Determined to take the next step in his football career, a 14-year-old Vardanega began making the two-hour trip into Canberra every weekend to play junior football for the Queanbeyan Tigers.
He did it every weekend for the next two years, before making the brave decision to leave home permanently at just 16 to start a new life in the ACT last year.
Vardanega continued to grow in stature both and on off the field, winning the 2015 Alan Muir Medal for Queanbeyan’s Under-18s best-and-fairest, plus the Alan Stein Medal for most promising player.
His enthusiasm and work ethic caught the eye of Canberra Demons coach Ben Waite during the pre-season, who offered the young defender a rookie spot on their inaugural NEAFL playing list.
“This kid, who is overly keen, with this mop of a haircut, came in and was asking all these questions,” Waite recalls.
“But I could see he had some good skills, and he goes to a school (Erindale) which has an AFL talent sport program, so he has been learning his craft and working hard there with Mark Armstrong.
“He is really coachable, keen and eager to learn, almost annoyingly so with all his questions, but it’s a good asset to have.
“After his first game against NT Thunder we went over some vision and the defensive elements of his game, and the very next week I could see he was working on them and thinking about them.”
Vardanega re-joined the GWS Giants Academy this year after first joining as a young teenager.
He made his NEAFL debut as a top-up player in Round 1, but dropped back to the AFL Canberra Division 1 competition to get some more senior experience under his belt.
After a few impressive performances for the Tigers, Waite selected Vardanega for his first game for the Demons against NT Thunder in Darwin in Round 8.
He featured among Canberra’s best players in his next two games, with his latest effort against Brisbane in their first win of the season on Saturday earning Vardanega the Round 10 NEAFL Rising Star nomination.
The 17-year-old, who was born in Wagga but grew up in Merimbula, wasn’t hesitant about leaving home at 16 to chase a football career.
“It was a choice I had to make,” he said. “I wanted to move to pursue a higher level of football.
“But honestly I just didn’t want my parents to move up because I wanted to go back down the coast for holidays.”
An attacking defender with good skills on both sides of his body, Vardanega is enjoying the learning experience his debut season has to offer so far.
To be a part Canberra’s history-making first ever NEAFL win on Saturday will be a moment Vardanega will never forget, and he hopes to solidify his place in the side for the second half of the season.
“It’s been a bit challenging with school this year and trying to balance everything,” he said.
“But I’ve found a bit of a rhythm, and now that I’m playing NEAFL footy it feels like it’s starting to pay off.
“I’ve never experienced a win like that before. It was incredible to be a part of it and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
“It’s pretty awesome to think of how far I've come.”
The Rising Star is awarded to the most promising young talent in the NEAFL competition.
Nominees must be under the age of 21 and played less than 20 senior games (excluding games as AFL top-up players) at the start of the 2016 season.
Keep track of all the 2016 nominees and watch their individual highlights on our dedicated Rising Star page here.
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