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Mitchell on Hawthorn's ceiling and what he 'stole' from Ange

Hawthorn coach Sam Mitchell is confident the Hawks are on the right track as they continue their aggressive rebuild

"As a club we knew we had to make some changes and those first two years have really been about building a foundation that we can rely on and that will be strong and will stand the test of time. Now it's about being able to build on top of that," he told last week.

"The foundation is there but how quickly can we build upon that foundation to take the next step in our journey?"

Clues to the question came in many forms last year: strong wins over eventual Grand Finalists Collingwood and Brisbane, Will Day's breakout and best-and-fairest winning season, a new-look youthful midfield, a string of exciting debuts and a style that saw buy-in and growth.

After eight wins in 2022 and seven last year, Mitchell is aware the hopes will lift again for further growth in 2024. But the Hawks haven't sat down to discuss their expectations on returning to the finals for the first time since 2018. 

"We need to put ourselves in a position this year where we're closer in games, where we can give ourselves chances to win. Too many games last year we had periods of games where we were blown away and we weren't even – scoreboard wise – in the ballpark of the opposition," he said.

"I'm quite big with the players that I'm not going to set any limits on what we can achieve. I don't know what the ceiling is, I know we're still a very young group.

"We'll go into the season one of the youngest teams in the competition and we know that will bring some ups and downs and our challenge continues to be when we have the ups how long can we maximise them for and when we have the downs can we make sure they are finishing quickly. Last year too often it was a bad five minutes that led to a bad quarter that led to a bad half."

Mitchell's time off from the club begun with a trip to Tottenham Hotspur, where he and assistant coach Adrian Hickmott spent a week at the English Premier League club.

He said he had "stolen" a couple of things from Spurs, and former Australian manager Ange Postecogolou about organising meetings, timing schedules and structures of the football department while in the UK, with some of Hawthorn's work mirrored on a larger scale.

"We commented a lot that we're doing a good job with our development," he said.

He returned for the start of the Hawks' pre-season before a family trip to America saw him hospitalised with a severe bout of illness over Christmas in New York. The serious health concern saw him spend a week in a hospital bed with pneumonia before he was cleared to fly home to Australia in early January, missing the start of Hawthorn's training for the new year.

Upon returning, he eased back into the program, crediting the football department for a smooth return.

"I had a rough week and certainly on the road to recovery for a week or two after that but I've been fine for a long time now," he said.

"The first couple of weeks was a little bit quieter, I didn't come in every day, I didn't go all day and all session, but I've been involved in the program to have enough of my fingerprints on it. The senior coach is obviously an important aspect but there's a lot of staff who help you run a program and I thought they did a great job. The players were in great shape and condition when I got back and onward and upward from there."

Hawthorn has embarked on an aggressive rebuild under Mitchell as other clubs have chosen to avoid the longer-term build, with the Hawks discarding senior players to rival clubs for improved draft hands and opportunities within the team for youngsters. If the first two years was phase one with finishes of 13th and then 16th last season, then phase two starts this year, with Mitchell committed to seeing the continued growth.

"I've been really confident that we're on the right path. There's been some bumps in the road and sometimes you have to remind yourself that we knew this was coming. When you're in that bump they can feel like 'Oh wow, this is a bit rockier than we thought' and the early part of last year was a good example of that. But at no point have we not been confident that we're on the right track," he said.

"I look at the development of our younger players as an example. You watch them and how quickly they're coming along and how quickly they're becoming significant players themselves, and that gives me great optimism. But then I look at players who have been around a long time like James Sicily and Luke Breust who have been around over a long period of time who are continuing to get the best out of themselves. You're trying to mesh it all together to be something that will give you that competitive advantage long-term."

Mitchell has also seen himself evolve as a young coach. The four-time premiership Hawks midfielder, 329-gamer at Hawthorn and West Coast and ex-skipper of the Hawks came into the role under heightened scrutiny after the aborted succession plan with former coach Alastair Clarkson at the end of the 2021 season.

With time, he has learned more about the role and finds himself with more time now to be hands-on.

"You always look back and wish you knew then what you know now. I'm sure in another 12 months I'm going to look back and think the same thing. I'm always learning, always continuing to evolve and learn from the best people out there, whether that's in our sport or other sports," he said.

"We've built a really strong football department and what that means is much less sits on the head coach's table. I'm able to do much more of the hands-on football coaching work as I've been in the chair longer."

With time, too, he has seen more talent walk through the doors of the club. Small forward Nick Watson arrived last November and is in line for an early debut after settling in nicely to the club. Josh Weddle has spent all summer as a defender and will continue to develop in that area of the ground before expanding his repertoire. Jack Scrimshaw has been a standout, while youngster Henry Hustwaite has taken his game up a notch over summer. Josh Ward and Cam Mackenzie, back-to-back top-10 picks in 2021-22 for the Hawks, are chasing midfield time, particularly with Day's early absence due to his foot stress fracture.

Then you throw in a busy trade period that saw the Hawks bolster their forward line with premiership magpie Jack Ginnivan, Suns tall Mabior Chol and returning flag-winner Jack Gunston as well as Bombers half-back Massimo D'Ambrosio.

Some of the pre-season optimism was hit on Thursday, when the Hawks confirmed Dylan Moore would miss at least a month with glandular fever and Changkuoth Jiath (hamstring) and James Blanck (knee) going down with injuries during an intraclub game. Blanck will miss the season with an ACL injury. It followed Mitchell ruling out Day (foot) for the start of Hawthorn's season against Essendon.

Defensively the Hawks battled against some key forwards last year, and made bids for tall defenders Ben McKay and Esava Ratugolea in last year's exchange period, but Mitchell is hopeful the team's improved "system" will assist in those direct match-ups this season. Nothing in Mitchell's blueprint has been about the immediate, short-term pay off and the approach will remain.

"I'm really confident we're on the right track and the speed limit of that – we knew it would take some time at the start. We've had two years of building it and it's about taking that next step in our transition towards being more competitive more often," he said.

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