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Agony set to turn to ecstasy for draft prospect Alex Witherden

ALEX Witherden was lying in a hospital bed after having a series of scans on his aching right leg. A doctor walked into his room and told him he had good news. Witherden, who had feared he was set to be ruled out for the rest of the season after having his leg trapped in a tackle while playing for Geelong College in May, started to get his hopes up.

“Then he said, ‘You’ve broken your fibula in four places, and cracked your tibia as well. And you’ve also taken out your syndesmosis ligaments in your ankle as well’,” Witherden recalled to AFL.com.au. “I was like, ‘What’s the good news in that?!”

The good news was that it was a clean break, and that with surgery his leg would mend. The ligaments in his knee had escaped damage, and they were confident there would be no long-term problems. But there was a kicker: he’d be out for eight months. Witherden’s draft season was over not long after it started.

Witherden began this year as a player recruiters were excited to watch. After impressing for the Geelong Falcons last season as a bottom-ager, he was added to the NAB AFL Academy squad and travelled to America for its training camp in Florida and Los Angeles. He set his mind to move from a playing as a composed half-back to a classy midfielder who kicked goals.

That goal was starting to come to fruition early this season, and although he was a little quiet in the Academy’s two games against VFL opponents, Witherden appeared comfortable against senior bodies. He took confidence from those games, and the following three weeks – split between the Falcons and Geelong College – were impressive.

The next week College faced St Kevin’s College in Melbourne. Witherden was feeling a little tired at half-time, so was moved to a forward role after the main break. But with his side beginning to be beaten, he shifted himself into the next centre bounce to try and wrestle back some momentum.

Witherden gathered the ball and shot off a handball but was tackled by Tim Taranto, a top-10 prospect at this month’s draft. Witherden’s leg turned slightly and Taranto fell on him, and in an instant his season was over.

“I was in absolute agony straight away. I was on the ground and the first thing I did was clutch my leg, and as I did that I felt the bones there shift a bit and could feel them clicking,” he says.

“After that I was in shock. All sorts of things were running through my head, like what it was going to mean for my draft prospects, if I’ll get picked at all and if all the hard work I’d done to get fit was even going to be worth it? Everything I’d been looking forward to I knew I was going to miss straight away.”

After having surgery that night on his leg, Witherden spent the next four days in hospital. He found that part of the period OK; there were plenty of calls, texts and visits, which kept his mind off the fact his season had ended. But when he got home to Geelong he started to think more about the road ahead.

The next week was College’s grudge match against local rivals Geelong Grammar. He was captain of College’s team, and hated watching from the sidelines. Then the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships started, and although Vic Country tried to make him and Jy Simpkin (who broke his leg weeks before Witherden) welcome around the side, they still didn’t really feel a part of it.

“We watched Vic Country lose all of its games at the carnival and it was disappointing not being able to contribute, and also not being able to put yourself forward and raise your own draft stocks as well, because that’s what I was hoping to do,” he said.

Witherden set himself a target to return to full fitness by October’s NAB AFL Draft Combine, even if he knew it might be tight. Within two weeks of having surgery he was back at the Falcons doing upper body weights, and after 10 weeks in the moon boot (and minor surgery to remove the screw in his syndemosis) he was able to step up his training and do a little bit of running.

He didn’t quite reach his Combine timeline but he hopes to train fully with the Falcons for a couple of weeks before the draft, and be ready for an AFL club’s pre-season.

In some ways, Witherden feels a little robbed that the draft year he had planned out so carefully was wiped so early. But he also thinks it has afforded him a chance to grow in different ways.

“It was a good time to sit back and reflect about how everything was going before the injury. You get a chance to see how people perceive you, and you can come to terms with if you like that perception or if some things need to be altered,” the 18-year-old said.

“For me, I felt like being the pretty confident guy that I am that I may come across as arrogant sometimes, or a bit misleading as to how I’m trying to portray myself. I wanted to rectify that.

“I probably approach situations a bit differently now, but still make sure I’m true to myself and act in a manner that is me naturally. But also I think I’ve matured throughout this process. You have to grow up pretty quickly when you have to take care of yourself.”

Clubs have also noticed a maturing. He was beginning to feel a little nervous about his draft chances mid-year when only one club had come from an interview – “You start to wonder if they’ve forgotten you,” he said – but more arrived after the championships and he’s had 12 visit in total.

He is expected to fit somewhere in the first 20 or so selections, and recruiters remember his poise and game sense as a player who can set things up out of defence. He wishes this year didn’t go the way it did, but is pleased it hasn’t been wasted.

“People told me early on that if I was to be drafted then I’d get another opportunity to make up for what I’ve missed this year, and that it will only serve as a minor setback. That’s the way I see it now,” he said.

“I’ve made the most of my time on the sidelines to put on some size in the gym and focus on a few different aspects of my life. There’s no point stewing over it now. It’s really exciting what could be around the corner.”

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