After spending almost two years away from football due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Benalla’s Samantha Pritchard is determined to make up for lost time.
Finishing runner-up in last year’s best-and-fairest count for the Benalla Saints Youth Girls in what was her first year back on the field, Pritchard was later selected in the Murray Bushrangers’ under-18 squad for this season.
Impressing at the next level is now Pritchard’s biggest priority, with the AFLW draft in October firmly in the 17-year-old’s sights.
“This (Bushrangers) is the next level to Vic Country, and Vic Country could potentially mean the draft,” she said.
“I would love to be drafted at the end of the year.
“I want to put myself in the eyes of the clubs as much as I can.”
After growing up playing football from as young as nine, Pritchard joined the Murray Bushrangers as a 12-year-old — a program she would spend the next three years in.
But in a major test of her resilience, Pritchard tore her ACL in a representative V/Line match in 2017, before waiting almost 11 months for surgery.
“The public waiting list is great,” Pritchard said with a laugh.
Remarkably in this time, Pritchard returned to her first love — running — and represented the state in cross-country without an ACL.
“I managed to build up enough strength around my knee to support running. I just couldn’t move laterally or get tackled,” she said.
Following surgery, it was the teen’s religious approach to her rehab that had her return to football eight months post-operation on what is typically a 12-month long process.
With her first match back set for round three against Mooroopna, Pritchard said she was “nervous” ahead of her long-awaited return.
“It was really scary especially as the calibre of players has increased, the intensity level is higher, skills are better and I feel like girls aren’t as fearful of tackling anymore,” she said.
“I was definitely scared coming back in. I didn’t want to do it (ACL) again because that seems to be the thing that happens a lot.”
But in her first hit-out in more than 19 months — a 52-point victory against the Cats — Pritchard was named in her side’s best.
“It helped me go, ‘you know what, I’ve got this, it’s fine’,” she said.
“Now I don’t even think about my knee when I play.”
What followed was a stellar season with the Saints, with the midfielder’s run and carry and endurance a trademark of her game, while her elite right kick also sets her apart from opponents.
Reflecting on her season, Pritchard said, while she hadn't come in with high expectations, she was “very happy” with her performance — which included three best-on-ground performances, seven times named in the best, and 11 goals in 13 games, including a season-high five majors against Finley in round 14.
“I just wanted to get through a season. I didn’t care if I played phenomenally. I just wanted to be able to play — that was my main goal,” she said.
“So to come up with runner-up best-and-fairest was beyond what I thought I could achieve.”
Pritchard also joined Keeley Skepper as co-captain of the Saints, with this leadership experience translating across to the Bushrangers, where Pritchard has been named as one of three deputy vice-captains this year.
She’s also been credited as one of the hardest trainers by those close to the program and blitzed the dreaded 2 km time trial in less than eight minutes.
With a personal gym set up in her home garage, Pritchard now works out five days a week alongside football training.
“I definitely like pushing myself, I pride myself on being willing to go that next level,” she said.
“I want to be in the best condition that I can for the team, I don’t want to go out there and not play my role. I want to be able to contribute and have a good hit-out.”
Pritchard’s season with the Bushrangers starts Saturday, February 29 with a round one contest against Oakleigh Chargers.
● Samantha Pritchard is nominated for the 2019-20 Benalla Chiropractic Centre Female Young Sportstar (under-18).