The ‘Shepp Dog’ lapping things up

Western Bulldogs youngster Laitham Vandermeer had to wait a while to realise his dream of making his AFL debut. When it came in round two, following the resumption of the 2020 season it wasn’t how he imagined things to look. Heading into his third game against Sydney on Thursday night, the speedster from Mooroopna is keen to make up for lost time.

Ben Guthrie: Laitham, making your debut against St Kilda after the season suspension must have been a great feeling. What are your recollections of the game?

Laitham Vandermeer: It had been a long time coming. To make my debut this early in the season was a little unexpected because I had a few hamstring issues over the break, but I had a good two weeks in match simulation so it was good to get a gig off the back of my training form. My first game is a bit of a blur to be honest. You don’t remember much of it because it went by so quickly. But it’s nice to reflect on how many people have been involved in your career and it was good recognition for them and myself. Driving to the club you think about all the people who helped you and it’s a good feeling that you’re making all these other people proud especially your family and all the pathway and development coaches.  I was a little more comfortable going into my second game and then getting picked for the third week in a row you sort of feel like you’re a little more at home rather than the first week.

Kicking a goal in your first game must have been a special feeling as well?

I had a shot at goal really early in the first quarter and I was a little bit rattled to be honest. My mind was a bit off because I was worried that I was going to miss it and I ended up missing. But it was a bit of relief to kick my first goal. It was a good achievement to nail that first goal because you can get that feeling off your shoulders and especially as a forward you’ve got to show your worth to the side.

Your family couldn’t be there which was a shame. What did they do for the debut game and what was the feeling like when you told them that you would be making your AFL debut?

Mum was saying they had the legal amount of people that could be at the house (back in Mooroopna) so they all got around there. My uncles are bloody crazy about me and my footy and when I told my parents (that he was playing) I could tell they were proud of me. All last year I didn’t play a game, I got close at stages, but sometimes when you’re driving or sitting in bed you have that imagination that you’re playing in front of big crowds – in this circumstance not – but you always just think about it. But the time it does come true it doesn’t feel real and you feel a bit sick about it. You think about all the hard work that you’ve done up until now and you pat yourself on the back and think you deserve it which is the best part about it. It’s a good feeling knowing you’ve earned it the hard way and it’s a good motivating factor.

Were you keen to use that isolation period as a chance to get a good block of training in to set yourself up for the restart of the season, whenever that was going to be?

I chose to stay in Melbourne and I paired up with (Western Bulldogs teammate) Bailey Smith. We had three training sessions a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We’d choose different grounds to train at and then I’d go back to his house and do a gym workout. It was good to train with him because he’s one of the better players in our team so it was good to learn off him. He’d always drive me to keep improving. The club was good in not drilling us too hard and it was actually good to have that mental break but still stay fit. It was actually motivating to work hard and enough work to really keep you fit but it wasn’t mentally draining which was good. Training with Baz was good because he’d always know what I had to do and I ticked off every session and I didn’t really get injured really well. With ‘Hunts’ (Lachie Hunter) unavailable it opened up a spot and I had that belief to come in and hopefully cement myself in the side.

You had a few hamstring injuries which slowed your progress in your first year at the Dogs. What did you learn from that frustrating period?

At the time it was tough to think positively about but looking back now you build a lot of resilience during that period of being injured. You become a little more motivated and professional in the way you do things. You learn a lot about yourself and your body too. I’m more of a high speed athlete so my body was a bit more of a chance to have those (soft tissue issues) as I adjusted to the training load. Continuity is a big thing and that’s coming out a bit now that I’ve been picked three weeks in a row and I’m feeling pretty good.

Your Dad Jeff is a legendary figure at the Mooroopna Football Club in the Goulburn Valley Football League. What’s his influence been like on you?

He’s coached me from Auskick to when I went to boarding school (at Xavier College) at 16 and he was very big on the fundamentals of the game. He taught me to kick at a very young age and I remember always going to footy training and he was there so I was exposed to footy at a very early age and I fell in love with the game because of him. The main reason that I’m here is because of him and the pathway coaches and the coaches at the club have obviously played their part in taking me to the next level, but he’s put a lot of time and effort into me and he just sort of lets me go and doesn’t tell me too many things about my game, but just asks how I’m going which is nice. He didn’t play any VFL/AFL. He tried out down at Norwood in the SANFL but he got a bit homesick and just started his apprenticeship so he decided to come home. It’s good to have that father-son connection that he played some good footy at Mooroopna and passed that love for the game onto his son. It’s something a little bit special for the club to have that type of combination.

The club itself is a popular breeding ground in unearthing AFL talent. You must be proud to sit alongside some pretty talented players…

We’ve had some good names come through the area – we’ve had me, Clayton (Oliver), Jy (Simpkin), Nathan Drummond, Jarrod Harbrow from what I remember. Mooroopna have produced a fair group of footballers. A few boys from the club always ask me about it and the club would feel pretty good that they’ve had some good players come through the system. It always helps their brand when they’re developing junior footballers when people know they’ve produced a few AFL players already.

Where did the nickname ‘Shepp Dog’ originate?

Sam Lloyd came up with that and it’s just stuck I guess. I don’t mind it although I’m from Mooroopna and not Shepparton. It kind of suits the style of my game with my speed and everything.

You mentioned the influence of Bailey Smith earlier. It must be good to have a teammate you can work with so closely and have as a solid support off-field as well?

I haven’t really thought about the future of us two too much but we both come from Xavier which is a pretty handy connection to have so we’ve stuck together pretty well and it’s always good to have a close mate at the footy club because you always feel like if you work on any part of your game he’s there to help as well as the coaches. It makes you feel a little more comfortable and it’s good to talk about stuff with him.

You wanted to mention a few people who have supported you along the way… 

Dad was huge from 0-16 years of age and from boarding school I had Martin Heppell (who played with St Kilda and Melbourne) and Luke Ball (St Kilda and Collingwood) and Matt Ball (Hawthorn) in my top age year for Xavier. Leon Higgins was big for my Murray Bushranger career. He gave me some real confidence and he’d always back me in and put me in some good positions to help me get drafted. (Western Bulldogs assistant) Daniel Giansiracusa has been a really big influence on me at the club and he’s given me a lot of advice, he’s been good off-field for me as well. I’ve taken up a bit of reading – he’s given me the Hunger Games books – and I’ve been doing a bit of drawing as well. It’s important to have that balance and that’s something Gia’s really shown me.

Good luck against Sydney on Thursday night, Laitham.

Thanks Ben.