Sarah Heptinstall has high aspirations when it comes to AFL … and what she lacks in height she makes up for in talent!
The Year 9 student from St Patrick’s College at Sutherland is both the only female from the Archdiocese to be selected in the All School State team as well as one of the shortest.
Standing at just 153cm tall, the plucky young player is considered one of the most promising players in the game today.
Sarah is one of an increasing number of girls playing AFL, the fastest growing sport for females in the country, recording a 20 per cent increase over the past five years.
Attributed to the establishment of the AFL Women’s competition, nationally 380,041 females now play – accounting for around 27 per cent overall. At local club level, 983 players are registered, a whopping 50 per cent increase in the past few years.
The majority of players succeeding are athletes who are drawn from a variety of other sports including netball, Oztag, touch football, soccer, basketball and gymnastics.
Females need excellent motor skills, the ability to kick, catch and run to a high level as well as have a high aerobic capacity and good peripheral vision.
Girls AFL does not discriminate against size and has different requirements to their male counterparts, with ball skills and agility a bigger advantage than height.
Sarah beat around 80 young hopefuls for a spot on the state team which will take on the best from around the country in Adelaide in July.
And while she has taken her short stature in her stride, she is now looking at making the national team her long-term goal.
“When I first started playing AFL I loved how it was such a different game to all the previous sports I had played,” she said.
“I enjoyed having so much space to run, kick the ball and tackle as well as the friendships I’ve made and all the new and supportive people I’ve met.
“My coach has always been really supportive of me which is one of the reasons I’ve done so well.
“AFL has provided so many opportunities for me to not only develop my skills that can be used in all sports, but also to create new and strong friendships that I can keep for a lifetime.
“I would love to play sport professionally when I leave school but I’m not sure which one that is yet.”
Coach Rick Joyce, who has been instrumental in developing AFL for school-aged players of both genders, said the opportunities for a future in the game for females were endless.
He has seen the sport grow in a few short years, with just 36 girls taking part in the NSW Combined Catholic Colleges (NSWCCC) selection trials in 2014 jumping to 88 hopefuls in 2018.
“There are no limits for people like Sarah to play at an elite level, there are new teams starting up all the time and lots of scope for them,” he said.
“AFL has been steadily increasing in numbers but has seen a real spike in the past five years, particularly with the girls.
“Sarah has reached representative honours in Oztag, touch football and soccer as well as 2018 being her second year selected in the NSWCCC and NSW All Schools 15’s AFL team.
“She has been able to adapt and use her agility and pace on the field as well as be able to kick, catch, handball and run at a very high level.
“Women’s AFL is growing very quickly, the National competition was introduced in 2017 with 8 teams and in 2019 there will be 2 more teams introduced, with two more coming in 2020.
“Working with some great people in the Catholic system both from Sydney Schools and other Dioceses around the state as well as other great people in the government and independent schools systems shows me AFL is in good hands in NSW.
“AFL is not there to take girls from other sports but provide another pathway for the girls to play multiple sports and generate an interest for them to play at a club level.”