A junior gymnast, a promising basketballer, and an Olympic hopeful; there was a different flavour about the Cats’ side that ran out against Essendon in Round 10.
Among the 22 players that wore the blue and white hoops that night was a trio that had previously pursued other sports than Australian Rules, two of which had little-to-no experience with the sherrin before they joined Geelong.
Cory Gregson, Mark Blicavs and Michael Luxford all played against the Bombers, with the trio enjoying a 69-point win in Luxford’s first AFL appearance.
Gregson (the junior gymnast) has enjoyed a stellar first year while Luxford (the promising basketballer) was returned to the VFL the following week, but it’s the meteoric rise of Blicavs that has the footy world talking.
Since arriving at Kardinia Park, the 198cm utility has taken huge strides in his development, to the point where some experts believe he could be in the top echelon of players.
“We now need to talk about him about a genuine elite midfielder in the competition,” former Essendon champion Tim Watson said on SEN radio yesterday.
“He does things that others can’t do. He’s tall and has great athleticism, great endurance and great reach.
“He is still picking up the nuances of the game but he’s getting there really quickly.”
Blicavs’ rapid rise didn’t just happen overnight. Since being drafted as a Category-B rookie in 2012, he’s enjoyed hefty exposure to the elite level, missing only four games in the previous two seasons – three due to being rested as his body continued to adjust to the demands of the AFL.
But it’s the rate of improvement from his League debut in Round 1, 2013 to the first half of this season where Blicavs has proved his worth.
“his willingness to learn and application to life as an AFL footballer is second to none. that’s across my experience as a player as well.” – Chris Scott
The former steeplechaser has increased his disposals average from 11.5 a game in his first two years to 18.5 in 2015. Across the 11 matches this season he’s increased his output in every statistic, averaging 10 contested possessions, nearly four marks, five tackles and four clearances each match.
In May, before Blicavs’ 50th match, Geelong coach Chris Scott said the 24-year-old is now reaping the rewards for his hard work over the years.
“To race to 50 games the way he has, and be a really important part of our team and improving every single day, is fantastic for the club, obviously. But he’s the one who should take credit for it,” Scott said.
“I think our coaches and support staff have done a great job with him, but his willingness to learn and application to life as an AFL footballer is second to none in my experience and that’s across my experience as a player as well. He’s a star.
“He hadn’t played a game of football since he was 12 so the game has changed a lot and he hasn’t seen much of it, much less played it. So his footy knowledge needed a bit of work but he picked it up so quickly because he’s a quick learner and is intelligent, and put the work in as well.”
Blicavs is leading the Cats for hitouts, ranks second at the club for tackles and third in clearances and contested possessions this year.
Most notably, he’s also taken just half a season to set a new AFL record. Blicavs has surpassed the previous record of 68 third-man-up hit-outs in a season, set by Hawthorn’s Jordan Lewis last year. In just 11 matches, Blicavs has registered 71.
Showing remarkable athleticism, he’s been able to play a role as a midfielder as well as a ruckman – often at the same time.
He and former Saint Rhys Stanley, another big-man boasting plenty of athleticism, proved to be a powerful combination in the centre square against the Power on Friday.
But with Stanley going down during the match, Blicavs might have to put up with the sore knees and shins and shoulder the bulk of centre-bounce duties while his rucking partner is on the sidelines.
— Wayne Ludbey. (@WLudbey) June 7, 2015
Scott believes the tall-man can be a valuable asset anywhere on the ground and says the Cats will play him wherever necessary to fit the side.
“The fortunate thing when it comes to Mark is we think he can play midfield, forward, back equally well. At times this year we thought putting him back was the most important thing to the team and last week it was in the middle but long-term it depends on how good our other players get,” Scott said.
Blicavs’ history has been well documented. Coming from elite sporting pedigree – his parents competed on the 1976 Australian Olympic basketball team and his sister the WNBL – his overall competitive experience with Australian Rules involved just one season in the under-11s for the Sunbury Lions before playing a second time at Taylor Lakes in the under-14s.
“my knowledge of the game is still relatively new so I’ll keep working hard and never stop learning” – Mark Blicavs
He gave up football in order to pursue an athletics career and attempted to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics. When steeplechasing didn’t work out, the Cats came knocking after a tip-off from Cam Guthrie’s father, Andrew, who had seen Blicavs play with his son in the juniors.
A trial at the club headed by recruiter Stephen Wells followed and four VFL games to end the year was enough for the Cats to select Blicavs as a rookie.
He couldn’t have gone to a better place to develop, with a wealth of successful players at the cattery to feed off for advice.
In an interview after Friday night’s match, Blicavs said he’s trying to learn as much as he can to keep improving.
“I’ve learnt from the best. There’s a heap of experienced Geelong players here so I’m just trying to pick their brains as much as I can and I think it’s slowly paying off,” Blicavs said.
“I’d like to think I’ve got a lot more improvement in myself with just basic skills. My kicking lets me down sometimes and my knowledge of the game is still relatively new so I’ll keep working hard and never stop learning so I’ll never stop improving, I hope.”
But it’s not just his teammates Blicavs is learning off. He told the Sunday Footy Show two weeks ago some opposition players give him a lesson in work-rate while on the ground.
“One that comes to mind is Brad Ebert from Port. We played them last year at Adelaide Oval and I just thought he was good in the contest and away. I felt like I was constantly chasing him. I rate his running power,” he said.
The Cats have improved on their inconsistent start to the season too, winning five of their last seven matches, including a win against top four side Collingwood where Blicavs collected a career-high 27 disposals while taking on Pies skipper Scott Pendlebury.
Though it’s taken a few years for Blicavs to hit his stride, he’s known for a long time that his decision to pursue an AFL career was a good one.
“It wasn’t a tough decision. I felt like I’d done everything I needed to have done in athletics at the time and the opportunity was too good to pass up. I spoke to my parents about that, and my coach, and made a really informed decision. There are no regrets.”
Though Blicavs is growing in confidence, he still has much to learn from his teammates.
“I’m not confident enough to mouth off yet. I’ll leave that to Steve Johnson, I reckon.”