Eagles' season review: Youth steps up, captain courageous leads the way

ALTHOUGH registering just two wins for the season, West Coast enjoyed plenty of improvement both from individual players and as a group. Youth was on show, captain Emma Swanson took her game to a new level and the West Coast brand started to emerge.

While there is still plenty of work to be done to become genuine challengers for finals, it is likely this season will be reflected upon as a significant turning point in the Eagles' fortunes.

Over the next few weeks, womens.afl will look at each of the 18 AFLW teams' season's in reverse ladder order.

West Coast players celebrate a goal in their round nine, S7 09 clash with the Western Bulldogs at Mineral Resources Park. Picture: AFL Photos

Head coach: Michael Prior

Leadership group: Emma Swanson (captain), Dana Hooker (vice-captain), Aisling McCarthy

Ladder position: 16th, two wins and eight losses, 53.2%

Debutants: Jaide Britton, Abbygail Bushby, Ashleigh Gomes, Sasha Goranova, Eleanor Hartill, Ella Roberts, Isabella Simmons, Ella Smith (AFLW debut), Kate Bartlett, Emma Humphries, Krstel Petrevski, Jess Sedunary, Mikayla Western (club debut)

Milestones: Belinda Smith (50 games), Hayley Bullas, Emma Humphries, Bella Lewis, Aisling McCarthy, Sophie McDonald, Jess Sedunary (25 games)

Rising Star nominations: Sarah Lakay (round five), Ella Roberts (round six), Charlotte Thomas (round seven)

Retirements: TBC

Roberts' snap gives Eagles perfect start

00:48 Oct 15. 2022. 5:47 PM

Ella Roberts puts through her side's first major inside the first minute of the game with this brilliant snap

Best team performance

In the fifth Western Derby, West Coast came as close as it ever has to taking home the trophy, falling by just three points. Using determined outside run and an attacking mindset, the Eagles had the lead at the main break.

They won the clearance count by three and reliably rebounded out of defence, making life difficult for their cross-town rivals. Up forward, the Eagles took five marks inside 50, indicating a level of system and control rarely seen by the side in the past.

In the middle, young ruck Sarah Lakay registered 42 hitouts - the second-most in AFLW history - to earn a Rising Star nomination, while Bella Lewis had 25 disposals and kicked a goal.

AFLW S7 Highlights: West Coast v Fremantle

05:20 Sep 22. 2022. 5:05 PM

The Eagles and Dockers clash in round five of the 2022 NAB AFL Women's Competition

Best individual performance

After hitting a form plateau last season, emerging star Bella Lewis kicked it up a notch this season, with her performance against Hawthorn in round six the icing on the cake.

Lewis gained 302m from her 25 disposals, using the ball at 79.2 per cent efficiency in the process, while also winning a game-high nine clearances, laying 10 tackles, and kicking a goal.

While her Eagles ultimately fell by three points, it was not through a lack of impact from Lewis.

Bella Lewis celebrates a goal with teammates during West Coast's S7 round six match against Hawthorn at Skybus Stadium. Picture: AFL Photos

Most improved

After a host of retirements and delistings last season, there was a dearth of defensive options for coach Michael Prior, which led him to turn to Charlotte Thomas. In just her second season - and first year - at AFLW level, Thomas took on a key defensive role with aplomb, working beautifully with fellow young defender Sophie McDonald.

Her round seven performance against Richmond, which earned her a Rising Star nomination, saw her win 23 disposals, seven marks, 11 intercepts and gain 386m as the Eagles pushed the top four Tigers to the final siren.

Thomas led the Eagles for intercepts and rebounds, while also averaging 14.7 disposals at 74.8 per cent efficiency throughout the season in a role she made her own.

Star recruit

Widely touted as the best talent in the draft pool this season, Ella Roberts was taken by West Coast with the first pick of the WA draft back in June and almost immediately proved her worth on the field.

Still just 17 years old, Roberts' aerial ability is eye-catching, expertly marking the ball even in the toughest of situations, and she can be used effectively almost anywhere on the field.

Earning a Rising Star nomination for her 15 disposals, two contested marks and six score involvements in round six, Roberts' character came to the fore in earnest in round 10. Against the avalanche that was eventual premiers Melbourne, Roberts was her side's best, winning 22 disposals, 447m gained and taking seven marks, she showed her willingness to stand up even when things were at their bleakest.

Ella Roberts poses for a photo after being selected with pick No.14 at the 2022 NAB AFLW Draft on June 29, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Unsung hero

AFLW journeywoman Belinda Smith spent time at both Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs before landing at the Eagles where she has established herself as an important rebounding defender.

Smith played all 10 games this season, including her 50th career game in the final round of the season, and did well to lead a young, inexperienced defensive line.

Equal-second at West Coast for intercepts and second for rebounds, Smith's ability not just in stopping direct opponents, but to surge up the field to set up teammates has been vital all year.

Belinda Smith gets a kick away during round eight, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

What went well

Despite just the two wins, West Coast had its best season in club history and did so while integrating a host of new players. The Eagles said goodbye to 13 players from last season and had to rebuild half of the list from scratch in the shortest off-season in AFLW history.

Across the course of the season, they conceded the Eagles second-lowest average score since joining the competition in 2020, while kicking their second-highest average score and moving inside 50 more than ever before. While at times these numbers might be marginal, all together they are indicators that the Eagles are moving in the right direction.

Much of this was built from a host of young players hitting the ground running. Ella Roberts and Charlotte Thomas are not the only teenagers having a big say. Sarah Lakay took on the number one ruck role and excelled, Courtney Rowley's evolution across the course of the season was encouraging and Sophie McDonald emerged as one of the best on-on-one key defenders in the competition.

Sophie McDonald spoils the mark for Eden Zanker in the S7 round 10 clash between Melbourne and West Coast at Casey Fields. Picture: AFL Photos

What needs improvement

What was most stark for West Coast this season was the inability to swing momentum back its own way, which meant a lot of damage was done on the scoreboard in short spaces of time.

The Eagles were blown away in the opening quarter by Essendon in round three, down by 30 points at the first break and ultimately losing by 52. Similarly, after a stunning four-goal first quarter against Hawthorn in round six, the Eagles lost by three points after Jess Duffin went on a tear in attack.

Both expansion sides, these are the kinds of teams West Coast can compete with, but not for long enough periods within games and often need a quarter's break to reset. Finding a way to win back control when in the throes of games will be the most important change should the Eagles move up the ladder next season.

AFLW S7 Highlights: West Coast v Essendon

05:57 Sep 11. 2022. 8:08 PM

The Eagles and Bombers clash in round three of the 2022 NAB AFL Women's Competition

Off-season focus

Adding depth at each end of the ground will be important for the Eagles during the off-season, particularly up forward. Often Ella Roberts was kept in attack purely to provide a marking target, but in an ideal world Roberts will be spending more time higher up the ground.

As West Coast improves its ability to move inside 50, having reliable targets to hit up is the next piece of the puzzle.