After nearly twenty years of providing opportunities for women to play sport, the Falcons spread their wings in 2008 and launched their first junior team: a youth girls Aussie rules team. It would be the beginning of a remarkably successful junior program that would soon spread to soccer and then cricket.
Kathy Zacharopoulos was one of the original Parkside players who joined the Falcons in 2003—she was also the coach of the first Darebin Youth Girls team and a key part in establishing the pathway. Kathy recalls that for the club, it was about “becom[ing] a better club”. Rebecca Hickmott, who was treasurer at the time, recalls that it was about the club wanting to start “creating some pathways to get football happening earlier”.
Also involved in the development of the Youth Girls team was Niki Duckstein. Niki arrived at Darebin around 2004 as a 13-year-old. She describes arriving at the Falcons as “a bit daunting” initially, but “it was such a nice beginning to be honest… it was a great kind of place to find a home, I guess in football.”
Establishing a Youth Girls team was a little more personal for Niki. “I could see there was a gap in the market so to speak, because I had been one that kind of fell through the cracks a little bit because the opportunity just wasn’t there.” Niki—who joined the committee in an effort to get the team up and running—recalls the club looked at the development of the team strategically.
It wouldn’t be an easy task setting up a Youth Girls team. The club started with a few footy clinics, some come and try days. Unlike now, with AFLW and the explosion of women’s football, it was a very different story in 2008.
“I think we were getting maybe five or six girls to begin with,” Kathy explained. “So that first year we really struggled to have numbers. I think we might have probably had about 10 or 12 girls play.”
In an effort to boost their numbers, the club ran some footy clinics at local high schools—a tactic employed successfully by Jasmine Hirst for the junior soccer program a few years later. The clinics worked and the team picked up a few more players.
In 2009, Roi Boutsikakis joined the coaching ranks with Kathy. It wasn’t the only addition to the team with the Dal Pos sisters—Jess and Emily—joining the Falcons in 2009. Kathy recalls it as being a turning point.
“I thought ‘Oh, I’ve got some girls that can actually play a little bit!’ because at that time I had young kids that probably had never really played before, you know, weren’t really that skillful. But you know, good on them, wanted to have a bit of a run around, have a bit of a go and that’s great,” Kathy said. “So those two came across and then we had Shannon (Egan) so then we just started to grow a little bit. We got to the point where we had like a good core number of girls like 14, 15 girls that were keen to sort of play and… that’s how it sort of built and started.”
The 2010 season would be a significant one for the development of the Youth Girls team. Richard Dal Pos would take the reins as coach, and the team would win their first premiership. In addition, the team would have players in the Victorian Metro team and the AFL Youth Girls Academy. In the 2010 annual report, Richard wrote that the team were ‘a great entity and everyone enjoyed and accepted each other. They refused to be drawn into any squabbling and were very driven. They played with great passion and more importantly compassion. So much so the club won the Best Conducted Club award’. It would be the beginning of an incredible run of success.
Premierships in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 testament to the strength of the Falcons. In a nod to the 1996 premiership team, the 2014 team, coached by Jess Dal Pos, found themselves four goals down at three quarter time. They clawed their way back and the game was tied at full-time, with the premiership decided ten minutes later with a golden point.
In the 2014 annual report, then club president Julia Chiera wrote that ‘Jessica was well-assisted by Elise Casamento and Shannon Egan, and it is a testament to the character of the girls, as well as the Falcon’s values of encouragement and support, that these 3 players, former youth girls themselves, took it upon themselves to step up into these coaching roles in order to continue to develop the team to which they used to belong’.
While the Falcons made it to the grand final in 2015 under the guidance of head coach Elise Casamento, they were denied a sixth straight premiership. However, the team was back on the winners list the following season, securing the 2016 premiership in their seventh straight grand final appearance. Grand final appearances in 2017 and 2018 followed, though the Falcons were denied flags. In 2019, the team made it to their tenth consecutive grand final, winning the NFNL premiership. It’s an astounding run of success, with coaches and players alike recognised and rewarded for their efforts and talents.
In the early days the only concerns the club had was getting the numbers and if the resources needed to field another team would be too much of a strain on the club.
“In the end, it wasn’t really. It didn’t take too much to get it going,” Kathy said. “And I think you could see the benefits from it afterwards… because then a few years down the track you have those young kids that were playing in youth girls then stepping up and coming and playing with seniors. So that was great. Which is exactly what you want at club level, to get your young kids coming through and playing. That’s what makes a successful club. Having that sort of structure.”
By 2016, the youth girls team at the Falcons was firmly embedded in the fabric of the club and so Darebin looked to where the next challenge was. With an eye on building a junior pathway, Auskick was the logical next step.
Former club president Aliesha Leonard recalled that Niki Duckstein had been involved with an Auskick program in Northcote for a couple of years. “I went along with Harriet (Radermacher) and what it was, was a whole field covered in little boys playing Auskick in their age groups, and a tiny group of girls, ranging from four to 14, playing Auskick in one little group, and I just thought it was incredible. I was like, ‘Well, why are we helping them over here? Why aren’t we running it ourselves? It’s ridiculous!’”
From there, Aleisha—with the support of the committee—ran with the idea of setting up a girls only Auskick at AH Capp. She faced resistance from AFL Victoria who were against the idea of a girls only Auskick program. Undeterred, Aleisha approached others at AFL Victoria, determined to get the positive response she wanted. That yes eventually came.
The next step was to find people to help run the program. Aleisha asked the senior players at training one night, and Lauren Arnell quickly put up her hand. “[Lauren] kind of pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, I’m a teacher, and I’ve got a background in that’—she was a PE teacher, and loved kids. And so she said, ‘I’d love to sort of be kind of overseeing it’. So that’s how we did it.”
In the traditional Falcons way of thinking outside the square when it came to doing things, the club elected to hold their Auskick sessions on a Friday night, getting senior players involved as coaches. The Falcons’ girls only Auskick began with nine girls. They finished with 23 girls. In that inaugural season, now familiar names like Daisy Pearce, Melissa Hickey, Meghan McDonald, Karen Paxman, Nicole Callinan, and Lauren Pearce were involved.
After the successful launch of the girls only Auskick, the logical next step was to develop junior teams. In 2017, the Falcons fielded an U10s and U14s team alongside the Auskick program. It wasn’t an easy beginning with the club sometimes struggling with numbers. But by 2018, the Falcons had added an U12s and U16s team, bringing the number of registered junior players to 130. By now, Aleisha had taken on the role of junior football coordinator.
By 2019, the junior football program had over 100 registered players with another 20 girls in the Auskick program. While again in 2019, the club fielded teams in the U10s, U12s, U14s and U16s as well as U18s, there were some struggles in filling the U14s teams. As the 2019 annual report explains, ‘with many local clubs adding girls’ teams, it is a widespread challenge to fill teams’. Rather than have those players miss out, the club successfully navigated a team merge with West Preston Lakeside for the 2019 season.
The development of the junior football program at the Falcons ensures that girls now have an opportunity to begin at Auskick and spend their entire footy career in the red, white and blue.