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Diary: My Katherine experience

Hawthorn VFLW team song After the bye round gave the team time to reflect on their first loss of the season, Hawthorn women were happy to get back on the winners list today.

Hawthorn VFLW star Phoebe McWilliams shares her experience from a recent trip to Hawthorn's NGA zone in Katherine, NT.

In Katherine, Hawks are everywhere.

From sunrise to sunset, large brown Kite Hawks circle the sky.

On the ground there are Hawks walking in and around town. There are school kids snapping shots on goal dreaming of becoming the next Cyril Rioli. “Go Hawks” is written on the side of buildings. Hawks jumpers are worn casually down the street.

AFL in general has a big presence in Katherine, and as the region is a Next Generation Academy zone for the Hawthorn Football Club, the Hawks have an even greater presence.

Katherine’s under 18 men’s and women’s sides are known as the Big River Hawks and these teams have had a relationship with the club since 2010.

When asked whether I’d like to visit Katherine with the club I took the opportunity with both hands. I’d never been to the Northern Territory and had heard great things.

Before I knew it I was on a plane with Nathan Foley, ex-Richmond footballer and Head of Hawthorn’s Next Generation Academy, as well as Randy Briggs, the Hawks Community Partnerships and Indigenous Programs Coordinator. Our itinerary for the week included three school visits, hosting an inter-school football round-robin tournament and running a kicking competition at the Barunga Festival. We were going to be busy!

Read: VFLW match report- Hawks back on the winner's list

Our first visit was to Katherine High School on the Tuesday where local volunteer Greg Bain has started up an U14 Big River Hawks Academy. The program is in its infancy, but already the group has good numbers. It is hoped that players from this group will progress to the Big River Hawks side once they come of age. The program also encourages students to continue with their studies, as those participating must also be regularly attending school.

The next two days involve a fair amount of driving as we visit the remote communities of Beswick and Jilkminggan. These towns are located about an hour and a half from Katherine and have a population of around 200. They each comprise of a school, a store and most importantly a football oval.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of girls playing football. Around a third of the students were female and it was exciting for them to learn that I played for the Hawks. Initially a few were confused as to how I could play for Hawthorn, but they quickly worked it out. “Oh, you play for the women’s team!”

On Friday, we held a NGA interschool competition. This is an annual event held on the Friday prior to the Barunga Festival. It’s an excellent opportunity for us to check out the local talent in a competition format. There were 11 teams competing this year – six boys' teams and five girls' teams (amazing, right?). It was good to see some of the students for the second time, have them recognise you, and build on the relationships we established earlier in the week.

My role on the day was to assist with the girl’s competition. There was plenty of fierce tackling, side-stepping and a number of snap shots on goal – things I could only dream of doing when I was their age.

The two most successful teams were scheduled to play one another in the final round - Barunga and Beswick. These two communities are neighbours and had been cheering one another on from the sidelines all day. Boy, did things change in this match. Friendships were tossed aside as the two teams battled it out in what was a close, competitive match. Home side Barunga were the winners.

Our final day in Katherine is spent at the Barunga Festival, which attracts around 4,000 people to the remote community. It’s a festival celebrating Indigenous culture, music and sport. Part of the day includes a tournament for the local men’s and women’s football teams. The style of football is completely different to what you see in Melbourne. The pace of the game is unbelievable and the ball travels from end to end in seconds. It’s entertainment like nothing else.

My week in the Katherine is one I won’t forget for a long time. It opened my eyes up to a completely different part of Australia that I’d only ever heard about. To visit these communities and get an understanding of the people and their culture was an incredible experience.

Despite the fact that I and the kids living in Katherine have grown up at opposite ends of the country, we were able to find a common bond in our love for footy. Football is a major part of their lives and it was refreshing to see these kids play for pure enjoyment.  I hope my presence there showed the girls there that they too can one day play for the Hawks.

Hawthorn’s involvement in the area provides a pathway for these kids to follow their AFL dreams. They see that the Hawks are, for lack of a better term, their ‘local side’ and they understand that there are opportunities available to them should they wish to pursue their football careers. The club has done a great job growing and developing relationships with these local schools, their teachers and their students.

I would like to thank the Hawthorn Football Club for allowing me to be a part of this trip. The club’s involvement in Katherine is a wonderful initiative and I have returned to Melbourne with a different perspective on a lot of things.

All of Hawthorn's Indigenous Programs are made possible by the wonderful support of the Epic Good Foundation.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs