TWELVE months ago, Tahlia Gillard was a little way into her first AFLW pre-season.
A raw tall selected with pick No.42 in the 2021 NAB AFLW Draft, she had played most of her top-age junior footy with Calder Cannons and Vic Metro as a ruck, but had some local level defensive time behind her.
With a number of keys ahead of her, externally, Gillard wasn't initially expected to feature much this season.
But in Melbourne's premiership triumph on Sunday, the 18-year-old held the AFLW's leading goalkicker Jesse Wardlaw scoreless from three disposals, one mark and one score involvement.
"I knew going in it was a hard task, I respect her so much, the leading goalkicker," Gillard told womens.afl post-match.
"But I love a challenge. The girls around me, they push me, and I have so much trust in them and they trust me. They allow me to play my best footy.
"I just went in like any other game of footy, except I had in the back of my mind that I did want to shut her down. I did that, so I'm proud of myself, but I'm also proud of everyone, I couldn't have done it without them."
SECOND TIME LUCKY FOR DEES 'This season, we actually got it right'
Gabby Colvin's ruptured ACL during pre-season opened up a spot in defence, and Gillard took it with both hands, playing 13 games and receiving a NAB AFLW Rising Star nomination.
"Last season, I was an emergency (for the Grand Final) and that really pushed me to get into this team. I'm so proud and privileged, and what an honour it is to play with people like Daisy (Pearce, captain) and Kate (Hore, vice-captain), and even Mick (Stinear), to be coached by him, he's one of the best. I'm just so happy at the moment.
"It's crazy to think I'm only 18, so what the future could hold is unimaginable. I'm only just starting my journey, and I'm just so grateful it's at Melbourne, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I love it."
Stinear spoke glowingly about Gillard's season in his post-match press conference.
"Gabby Colvin was injured (in season six) as our key defender, and she came in for two weeks. Then Gabby was fit and available and had done everything right, so Tahlia missed out. And the feedback for Tahlia was she just needed a bit more experience, and then you can prove yourself and squeeze someone else out of that spot," Stinear said.
"She ended up playing VFLW and VFLW finals, and built on that experience. She's got the right amount of confidence, she doesn't come out (to play) and stay in the shadow. Like she really believes in herself and brings a lot of energy to our group.
"But for what she did today, I mean, she's made life hard for Daisy and Tayla (Harris) at training, she loves playing on them. So it's no surprise to see what she did today because she gets to practice against some of the best on a weekly basis.
"That was a super effort for an 18-year-old, but I don't think she would have stopped to think about it. She was just playing and competing and being herself, but yeah, one of the great stories and a super talent."
'SHE'S THE OPPOSITE' Daisy bites back at Tayla doubters
Time and time again, Gillard returned to acknowledging the group outside the first 21, a clear approach of the team this season.
"On the final siren, I was just speechless, you've worked all the way up to this moment and you don't know what to predict. I was just going to Daisy, 'f***, we did it', sorry for swearing," she said, among the post-match hubbub.
"It's everything I could have imagined, the whole back half, we did it for Mick and Daisy and all the girls, all the injured players. You don't do it for yourself, it's an individual reward but at the end of the day, you do it for the girl next to you. That's been our motto all season, to play for the person next to you, not yourself.
"Before the game, we shout out the girls who aren't playing, we shout out the staff, we shout out Mick, we shout out Daisy, because realistically, they're the reason we're playing such good footy. They're the reason we're able to win this cup. Yes, everyone on the field did their job, but it's the whole club."