The evening April air is cooling at Bundoora Oval. The happy chatter of the Redbacks and the regular thump of boot on ball is suddenly split by the tell-tale blast of a sports whistle.
“Alright, bring it in!” hollers Mitch Lower. His players swarm around the clubroom-side boundary and Mitch begins to speak with Gezim at his side.
“Girls, firstly tonight we’re welcoming a new player – Bree Daw.”
The whooping and clapping surrounds the shyly smiling newcomer.
“So, make her feel welcome, do your best to make her a part of the team – she’s a PT, so good luck keeping up with her!”
As much as his credentials make him an obvious candidate for the role, Mitch had not initially intended to be the inaugural senior coach at the Academy.
Following his second stint as coach of the RMIT women’s Australian Rules team at the annual national multisport competition Uni Games on the Gold Coast, he was approached with a position offer at the then-conceptual Academy.
“Chris O’Connor and Sally Tanner, who I’d worked with at Diamond Creek and RMIT respectively, approached me for a strength & conditioning role at the Academy,” says Mitch, whose career has included personal training at Jetts Reservoir and now at the RMIT Bundoora campus.
Mitch is just 24, an age at which many of his colleagues would still be taking notes from a mentor. Many men coaching female football sides are asked of the important distinctions between coaching girls and boys. Approaches, priorities, adjustments … but Mitch is part of a new guard. From RMIT Uni Games to Diamond Creek to the Academy, he has only coached female football.
Along with Chris O’Connor, Scott Chisholm and a small handful of his players, his journey in women’s football began at Diamond Creek. In 2017, the year in which AFL Women’s was first launched, he was a strength & conditioning intern under eventual North Melbourne AFLW coach Scott Gowans and High-Performance Manager Alex Veitch while also having a coaching role with the Creekers’ reserves side in Division Two of the Northern Football League.
AFL Women’s changed the landscape of women’s football and the revolution wasn’t without its losers. With AFL clubs entering the VFL Women’s competition with affiliate teams, the foundation clubs like Diamond Creek were shunted down to being ordinary local clubs. For over a decade, these clubs had fought out of the wilderness in which their code had found itself and produced the players and coaches for the very competition now sweeping them aside. Such was the price of a game growing up.
Diamond Creek’s AFL players and coaches were sucked into the vortex and Mitch became the senior coach in 2018. Having gone from three senior teams to one, the Creekers competed in the NFL Division 1 and reached the semi-final, where the VU Western Spurs triumphed. Between that semi-final and his step into the Academy, he coached the Redbacks to a silver medal at the Uni Games on the Gold Coast.
Back at Bundoora Oval, the players break into their lines and go over skills and game plans. Mitch watches them as he speaks, never standing still. He freely references the Academy’s “potential” as a major factor behind his decision to accept the senior coaching role.
“We’ve already seen in the first year the vibe, the facilities, the access and people it has… it’s just not available at other community level clubs.”
Mitch has an endearing, boyish demeanour with a steady composure and worldliness; both traits suited the uncertainties of the Redbacks’ first pre-season. Not a single player turned up to training in December so pre-season was put on hiatus at first until January …. and then until February as player registers remained empty.
Mitch’s optimism quietly reassured Sally Tanner’s nervousness in those anxious weeks but he was visible at every recruiting drive at the Lonsdale Street campus. Hours out in the sun during the summer open weeks, encouraging drifting passers-by to come and try. Stalls were set up, equipment lugged in from streets away. The sun crouched close. The concrete baked. The crowds rose and fell. Mitch Lower signed nearly one hundred names to his sheet. When he thinks of that campaign, he testifies his belief that the players would come to what the Academy could offer.
“We knew that we had something here. We were quietly confident – and I’m always a confident person, people know that about me – and it’s turned out right.”
The whistle blasts again and the players trot in. Mitch details the next drill, which focuses on moving the ball off the half-back line by running in pairs.
“Nice loud calls,” says Mitch. “Let’s go!”
The lessons learned in the rebuild at Diamond Creek have paid off in spades for Mitch. The inexperience of his players and the blank canvas of the football program were simply business as usual. However, the no-fuss fundamentals of senior football came a-knocking once things began rolling in earnest in the pre-season. The countdown to Round 1 was chaotic. Many pieces, many missing pieces, many decisions about how to handle both. For the coach, his job can be best summarised as “catering”.
“The biggest thing so far that I’ve had to deal with is the varying levels. We have some elite athletes, we have some girls who are completely new to footy. Catering to each of their needs and making sure they were all stimulated is the most important aspect.”
The Redbacks are less than a month into their first season. Mitch acknowledges everything that has been achieved against the odds and speaks with real pride of the fact that there are two teams playing in VAFA. However, his big memory from RMIT’s Round 1 double header is that it was a “wake-up call” – yeah, the dream machine was up and running but now is the time for serious work.
The Redbacks finish training with their favourite drill: criss-crossing handballs awaiting an unpredictable whistle blast. Whoever has ball in hand has a flying shot at the goals, to the erupting cheers of their teammates.
“Alright girls – South Melbourne Saturday,” Mitch says once the gaggle has joined for their final debrief. “Remember what we’ve gone over. Reserves arrive at 10.30, seniors 12.30.”
Mitch dismisses his players and they all babble off the ground and make their way to Vorea. Tonight’s homework piece over dinner is a personal Q&A that will eventually become a part of the official website. The final question is Why did you join the Academy?
For many, the answer is simple. “Because of Mitch 😊”.