Hawthorn defender Mackenzie Eardley is just 20 years of age.

Earlier this year, she was the head coach of Dandenong Stingrays' under-16 boys team.

After cutting her teeth helping out with the Stingrays' under-16 and under-18 girls sides last year, her former coach Nick Cox reached out to see if she'd be keen to coach the boys side outright.

"Being a head coach of an under-16 boys program probably wasn't on my cards of what I thought I'd be doing," Eardley told AFL.com.au.

"He put a lot of faith in me, he put a lot of confidence in me, that I could lean on and think it was something I could actually do. If someone who has seen you develop as a footballer on and off field has that much faith in you, it's something you have to back yourself in and go for it. 

"I've always followed around my (two older) brothers at their footy, my dad was a coach as well (at South Mornington juniors), so it was something I've always had around me. When that opportunity to coach the boys came up, I thought it was something exciting, when I had the support around me it was something I couldn't turn down."

Under Eardley's tutelage, the Stingrays won both their official games, defeating Geelong Falcons by two points and GWV Rebels by 20.

The program ran from November to April, with a handful of practice matches along the way, with one of the two training sessions a week occurring alongside the under-18 Stingrays.

"I'm not really around a bunch of 15-year-old boys a lot, that was definitely different. But I think it's so much about trust and respect with them," Eardley said.

"The more time you spend around them at training, they learn you do have the knowledge and will help them, and they see themselves developing along the way, then they start to warm up to you and you start building banter and get a really good relationship with them. 

"Once you break down those boundaries, it becomes really easy. They were such a good group, I was really lucky with the boys I did get to coach – they all wanted to learn, so that makes coaching so much fun, because you can see the reward, and you can see they're willing to work hard. 

"I had to learn how each individual boy worked and how they learned, whether they were visual learners, whether they were quite hands on and had to do it themselves. It was just understanding they all bring different things to the table, and rather than seeing that as a negative, seeing it as a positive, that once they put all their strengths together, they can do some really incredible things on the field."

A former Stingray herself, Eardley took inspiration from her under-18 backline coach Steph Binder, who in an odd coincidence, has recently been appointed Hawthorn's defensive assistant.

"She was the first female coach I had in the space, so she highlighted to me when I was younger that women can be in that space," Eardley said.

"Prior to that, I hadn't thought of it as anything I wanted to go into, because my goal was to make it to the AFLW. But once I got there and was thinking about where I wanted my career to go off-field, it was definitely something that reminiscing about the olden days at the Stingrays, it was 'Steph was really good at that', and there was a space and opportunity for me in the girls program (in 2023). 

"She was definitely someone who gave me the idea that I could do that too."

Pick No.6 in the 2022 AFLW Draft, Eardley – who is studying exercise science and nutrition – still has at least 10 years of patrolling Hawthorn's backline ahead of her, but she's still got one eye on what's to come in regards to her coaching.

"I've tried to not think about the future too much in that aspect, but definitely want to continue developing my coaching and getting my level three coaching and all that," she said.

"One day I'd hope to be in an AFL program, whether that's women's or men's space. Being a head coach hopefully, but hopefully that's quite far in the future and my playing career lasts a bit longer so I can definitely have that under my belt.

"I'm just so proud of the boys. I had nine make the final under-16 Vic Country squad, out of 26 selected, and just a shout-out to them, because they put in the hard work, and I'm very proud of the group."

Feature image taken by Jazz Bennett Media.