By JESS WEBSTER
In his own words, Mitch Hardie says coach Kade Klemke “took a stab in the dark” when recruiting the Riverina product to the club in 2016.
Ever since, Hardie has tried to replay the faith his new coach showed in him.
It’s a common theme that’s occurred at the Demons the past two seasons since Klemke has been in charge, and they’re bearing the fruits of their labour in early 2018.
Hardie, the NEAFL’s latest Tribal Sport Rising Star nominee, is the club’s third nomination in the first five rounds after Mitch Maguire (Round 1) and Angus Baker (Round 3).
For Hardie, he was once dropped from the GIANTS Academy and his only football experience has come from playing in the Riverina Football League, where he made his senior debut for Leeton-Whitton at just 15.
But Klemke gave the now 20-year-old an opportunity, and he grabbed it with both hands.
“One of my really good mates from home, Lucas Meline, was in my ear about the Canberra Demons and the NEAFL,” Hardie recalled.
“Where I come from in country footy there isn’t any real footage of the games, so all Canberra had was maybe footage from a Grand Final one year.
“That’s been one of the pleasing things – Kade took a stab in the dark with me and put a bit of faith in me.
“I guess I’m here now trying to repay that faith they’ve put in me to give me an opportunity.”
It didn’t take Hardie long to impress, earning his NEAFL debut in Round 1, 2017 where Canberra beat Redland on home turf by 21 points.
Hardie played every match last year, and was joint-winner of Canberra’s Most Improved Award at season’s end.
At first Hardie wasn’t sure if he was up to NEAFL standard, but he credited the club for instilling confidence in his ability.
“I always saw the NEAFL quite a high standard. I was lucky enough to play with five former Queanbeyan players in our local league… and I thought to myself, I don’t know if I am up to the standard of them because they were all really incredible footballers,” he said.
“I was nervous, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but everyone at Canberra is great in developing talent. It’s really special here and they all reassured me it was going to be fine, and to just go out there and play your own game.”
Hardie laid the foundations for his solid start to season 2018, where he is averaging 20 disposals and nearly a goal per game after five rounds.
His effort last Saturday against Gold Coast – with 30 disposals, six inside 50s and two goals – was his best to date, after earning the maximum 10 NEAFL votes.
Another gruelling pre-season and a willingness to learn off his teammates has put Hardie in good stead, as he looks forward to what 2018 has in store for him and club.
“You have a lot more respect for a pre-season (coming in to the NEAFL),” he said. “My first pre-season was the shock of my life.
“I try and pick up things the most experienced player at the club do and try to do something similar as a way to help myself improve.
“It was nice to have a game like that (against Gold Coast), and it gives you the confidence to keep going out there and do what you’re doing.”
With so many young players making their mark on the competition, Hardie says the future looks bright for the Canberra Demons.
“I think we’re developing each week in to a team that’s going to be a real shock to a lot of teams in the next couple of years,” he said.
“I think if we can put together a full four-quarter performance, we can match it with anyone in the competition, even now.”