As the Kingborough Football Club’s players board the bus to Devonnport on Saturday morning, two of their former young teammates will be preparing for their own battles later that day.
Hawthorn’s Kieran Lovell (main photograph) and Gold Coast’s Mackenzie Willis (inset) will make their AFL debuts in Round 6 after coming through the Kingborough ranks in the Tasmanian State League.
The Tasmanian duo were selected in the 2015 national draft – Lovell at pick 22 and Willis at pick 52 – and haven’t had to wait long to make an impact at their respective clubs.
Lovell will make his first AFL appearance at Spotless Stadium against the rising Giants, while Willis will travel to the Cattery for his first game in the Suns’ colours.
Both players are former Kingborough Tigers and good friends since their playing days in the TSL, where they were coached by Adam Henley.
Here. Henley recalls his time with the soon-to-be AFL debutants.
Kieran Lovell – Hawthorn
I coached Kieran for probably four years.
He was originally from Huonville and he came to the Kingborough Tigers junior club in the Under 12s so he was always a pretty special talent coming through. He played senior footy as a 15-year-old but had a couple of injuries with his shoulder at a young age. Two years ago he went and got a shoulder operation which was probably a good thing for him in the long run.
He obviously had a really strong year with the Mariners program last year and he played really well for the Tigers also.
Kieran’s obviously small in stature but he has an amazing step, explosive pace and has developed his inside game really well in the last two years. Previously he was seen as a good outside player who could run and had good skills but he can mix that now with an ability to play inside and tackle well.
Beforehand, with his shoulder injury, he probably couldn’t perform those inside skills with the way they were required but it’s something he’s really developed.
Kieran was the more naturally gifted player of the two boys but he recently grasped the work ethic to go to the next level.
Being from Huonville, Kieran was based further south in the Tigers zone. His family made a massive sacrifice just in regards to the travel. It would be about an hour’s drive to most training sessions three to four times a week.
Kieran’s got a large family too, with seven siblings and his brother Jordan also played footy for the Tigers a few years ago but he now plays for Huonville in the local competition.
The Lovell side is a wood-chopping family down this way and they’ve always been fairly good sportsmen.
Mackenzie Willis – Gold Coast
I coached Mackenzie for a couple of years at Kingborough.
He came back to us from Hobart when we entered the TSL a couple of years ago. Like Kieran, he was a Kingborough junior player and went to Hobart to play TSL footy at the time before coming back as a vice-captain in his first year as an 18-year-old – he’s always shown amazing leadership and not just through the way he plays, but the way he prepares. He was always going to get the best out of himself.
He was in the same boat as Kieran, they both had shoulder operations one year so they both probably spent a lot of time in rehab together. It’s become an interesting story – both having shoulder reconstructions two years ago and now making their AFL debuts.
Mackenzie’s just a workhorse. He basically had a year off Uni just to get himself the best opportunity to get drafted, he was at the club three to four times a day and his preparation was probably near AFL standard. He put everything into getting the best out of himself physically and with his skills.
I think everyone around the club was rapt to see him get an opportunity because he gave everything to get that chance.
I was also part of the state side which played against the NEAFL last year and he played a really good brand of footy over there. We had a lot of talks with some clubs in the lead up to the draft but certain clubs wanted to see different things. Some may have wanted him to play more on the inside doing grunt work, while another wanted him more on the outside and to run more so it was fairly difficult to work out how he wanted to play and he had that added pressure but just played the role that we asked of him.
I can remember a game two years ago where Mackenzie had 40 touches and kicked three goals playing as an on-baller and just worked harder than anyone else on the ground.
Brad Willis, who is Mackenzie’s father, has been our on-ball coach for the last three years so I’ve got a really good relationship with him. He would’ve coached a lot of Mackenzie’s teams when he was younger. He, along with Mackenzie’s mum, have always been around the footy club.
We’re only a fairly new club – this is our third year in this TSL completion. Previously the Kingborough club was zoned to either Sandy Bay or Hobart, so we’ve had a few guys in those times make an AFL list but Kieran and Mackenzie are the first couple out of the Tigers club.
They’re pretty good mates. They obviously played the last two years together. Macka’s about two years older than Kieran but going through those shoulder operations certainly bound a friendship together.
A game that sticks out in my mind is at the end of the year when we played Clarence and Mitch Hibberd – who was drafted by North Melbourne last year – was involved in that game too.
It was a great spectacle to watch the young talent in that game. To have three boys from that match get drafted was pretty special.
I found out this week Mackenzie was playing when his father grabbed me and said I can’t come to Devonport this week, we’re going over to Geelong to watch him play. We always sort of knew he would have the opportunity sooner rather than later.
We had only just put note on our Tigers page about Mackenzie getting a game when Kieran sent me a message about 30 minutes later saying he’s making his debut this week also, so it’s pretty exciting times down here.
While we probably won’t be able to watch the two games – we have a bus trip this weekend for our match – but we’ll certainly be having a look at the replays.