First-year Demon, Bayley Fritsch, took the road less travelled to AFL prominence. After being overlooked by the Eastern Ranges, and playing Division 4 in the EFL with Coldstream, the exciting forward was invited to train with Casey in the VFL, and impressed so much in 2017 that the Demons selected him with pick 31 in the 2017 national draft. The 21-year-old spoke exclusively with AFLPlayers.com.au.
Things got a bit tight on Saturday night. Were you nervous leading into three quarter time?
I wasn’t really nervous. The three quarter time break helped us to re-settle a little bit and we got back to what we’re good at. Our defensive mindset returned and we came through with the win.
Being just a second-gamer and seeing the opposition pile on goals, are you someone that is confident enough to be vocal, or are you waiting on others around you to be setting the standards?
The voice was still pretty strong from everyone for the whole game, it was just that we lapsed a little bit defensively and they got out the back a couple of times. It wasn’t a lack of communication, it was more just getting back to what we know.
Are you starting to feel more comfortable in this environment?
Definitely. Every time I go out and play another game, it gives me more experience and that in turn provides me with more confidence and just helps me.
Considering it was your first win, I imagine it felt significant for you. What was it like walking off the ground, hearing the theme song and then getting the Gatorade shower?
It was a surreal feeling. You watch a lot of people go through that as you’re growing up as a kid and probably never think you’ll be in that position. I loved every part of it.
Did you have any family in attendance?
My family were there — they weren’t in the rooms — but my mum and dad made the trip up to Brisbane and were there to see it.
Going back a step, how would you describe your footballing journey so far? It hasn’t been a traditional pathway…
Yeah, it’s been a tough one, but it’s probably turned me into the person I am today. I’ve had to show a fair bit of resilience after not getting selected at TAC Cup level, then going back to local footy and working on my game at local level in Coldstream, and then getting the call-up to play for Casey in the VFL at the end of 2015, then play a few VFL games in my first year and shortly afterwards, suffer a back injury which put me out for the best part of 15-16 months. It was especially tough because of my working day which was probably 7am-4pm, and it was an hour away from home, and then Casey was another hour in the other direction. It was a fair commute! I was trying to tick off rehab at training to try and be professional and do everything I could. To then play in 2017 and show my stuff and get to where I am today is pretty crazy. It’s been a whirlwind few years but I wouldn’t change it.
And you were working as an electrician. Is that correct?
Yep, I was.
Is that now on hold, or can you still manage a day a week?
I might go back to it in my second year in my off days, but right now I’m focused on my footy to keep my head in the game.
Why do you think you weren’t selected at TAC Cup level? Do you think you weren’t being noticed because you were in the lower divisions of the EFL, or was it something else?
I had a fair growth spurt, so I was probably low 180s so I wasn’t very big, and I think they had a few other players in my position. I went down there for a session but never heard back so I just resumed playing for Coldstream and played in the seniors there for two years and was lucky enough to get a call-up to Casey. I think it was an opposition coach who called Nick Rutley, who was a coach at Casey and had also played at Coldstream, so I knew who he was. He gave me a buzz and said that he had received a few phone calls from a few coaches and asked if I wanted to go down to Casey and have a run. It went from there.
So opposition coaches from the EFL were endorsing you to Casey?
Yeah, pretty much.
How did you feel getting that praise and that opportunity?
It was amazing. Obviously you grow up and you want to take your footy as far as you can, and even though I was only playing Division 4 footy at 16 or 17, I still had aspirations to take my footy as far as I could in life. When I received that call it was a massive thing for me, and I wanted to do as much as I could down there to get a spot and cement that spot in the VFL.
How’s Coldstream going now? Are they still in Division 4?
Yeah, still divvy 4. The club just got a new coach, so I think we’re on the up. I try to get down there as much as I can, I love how welcoming they are and that they’re a family club. I grew up there and my dad played all of his footy there and I just love being around there.
When your AFL career winds up, will you head back and play again?
Definitely! I’d love to go back down there at some stage and play with all my mates who I grew up playing with.
When you got to Casey, that seemed to be when you started to get some injuries, was it predominantly a back problem?
Yeah, so about Round 9 of my first year, I was pulling up really sore and there was one game where it was really bad, so I went and got scans. The scans came back and informed me that I had L3 stress fractures, and then I was due to come back Round 1 of the next year, but then I tore my meniscus in rehab. I got an arthriscope on that, so that set me back until Round 15. All up, I missed over a year of footy. I played the rest of that 2016 year in the development league, and came back in 2017 and wanted to try and get a clear run at a full season and was lucky enough to.
You played 19 games last year?
Yeah, I did. I rested on a couple of them, but managed 19.
And kicking 42 goals is a great achievement, especially when you consider you’re not a key forward, but what did it feel like to win the Fothergill-Round Medal as the VFL’s most promising player after the terrible run of injuries you endured?
To come into a pre-season with the goal of just getting out on the park, if you had have told me 12 months ago what was going to happen down the track, I would have told you to go away. I’m just excited by the opportunity I’ve been given and will give everything to hold onto it for as long as I can.
Can you remember your first feelings when you joined Casey and started playing games? It must have been crazy to go from the lower rungs of the EFL and then to play with and against AFL-listed players?
There was definitely a stage where I looked at it and thought, ‘Wow, look at this!’ But once you get into the game you don’t look at your teammates or opponents as AFL-listed, or just VFL players, you just look at them as an opponent or a teammate. It was surreal initially but then I got into the heat of the battle and took it in my stride.
How are your mates from Coldstream handling the fact that you’ve made it to the big time? Are they getting to games and supporting you?
I had a fair few of the Coldstream boys at my first game, which was pretty good. They’re supportive and are obviously very happy for me. I try to repay the favour and get down and watch them when I can.
When did you start getting AFL interest? Was it during last year’s VFL campaign or closer to the draft?
I started getting a little bit of contact probably halfway through the VFL season, and just before the state game. It gradually went from there.
West Coast and Melbourne seemed the keenest. Who else did you speak with?
I chatted to about a dozen teams, but I don’t know how many of them were actually interested.
When the draft rolled around, did you know Melbourne were going to take you, or was it a shock?
I had no idea! Melbourne were one of the first clubs to speak with me, but I didn’t speak to them again after that. To be honest, I wanted to come to Melbourne because of the Casey link and the fact I knew a few of the boys, but I didn’t think I was a chance to get there. I was stoked when I heard my name called out.
Where were you watching the draft?
Just at home with my family and a couple of mates.
What were the celebrations like?
Haha, we celebrated a little bit! It was an amazing feeling and didn’t feel real on the night. It also didn’t feel real during my first few weeks at the club, to be honest. I felt like I was just doing a bit of work experience. It didn’t seem right that I was in an AFL system, but now that I’ve been here a bit it is starting to feel real.
How’d you tackle the pre-season grind?
It actually wasn’t too bad because I was working some big days as an electrician. Although the conditions are warm and you’re getting through some big running and weights sessions, you’re also doing a lot of recovery, but normally I’d be doing a full day of work, waking up at 5am and not going to sleep until 10pm with no time to recover and not eating at the right time of day. It was still tougher than a VFL pre-season, but in terms of sleeping and recovery, I felt more rested because I was not balancing VFL commitments with full-time work as an electrician.
So you probably prefer elite training facilities and proper rest instead of working on a site I presume?
What was it like playing your first AFL game on the MCG against the Cats last week?
It was unbelievable. I’m actually a bit lost for words because I can’t really explain it. From the time I found out I was playing to going out there, I wouldn’t be able to put into words what I was feeling. I was just disappointed we didn’t win.
And you nearly joined an exclusive club…
Yeah, nearly! I kicked a point with my first kick and a goal with my second.
What’s it like going to training and seeing Christian Petracca, Jordan Lewis, Jack Viney and Max Gawn?
With those experienced heads around, not only can you take tips and points from what they do, you also get to play alongside them and learn from their communication and leadership on the field.
What makes you tick? Are you someone who’s naturally fired up, or are you more relaxed?
I’m pretty relaxed. I keep it low key before games and before training.
Are you still living at home or have you moved out?
I’ve moved out to St Kilda with my girlfriend and our dog, Max.
It must feel good to be a little closer to training this time round?
Definitely! It’s so much easier to drive 15 minutes to the club and have no traffic.
Brilliant. Thanks for taking the time to have a chat.