2019 NAB League Girls Grand Final best-on-ground Jessica Fitzgerald was just one part of a triumphant Northern Knights team that united in the shared pain of losing the 2018 decider.
Fitzgerald consistently set up dangerous attacking thrusts from behind the ball in Northern’s 33-point flag victory over the Calder Cannons at Ikon Park on Saturday, recording a team-high 15 disposals as well as five tackles and three rebound-50s.
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The 17-year-old was instrumental in helping the Knights hold firm in the face of Calder’s forward forays but deferred credit to the defence of the team as a whole.
“(I was) definitely (surprised to win the best-on-ground medal),” Fitzgerald said. “If anyone saw my face (on the podium), I was like: ‘What?!’
“I’m not really about the individual achievements, just more about the team. I’ll take it (the honour) I guess, but I was really happy with the win.”
Contrary to Fitzgerald’s own humility, Northern head coach Marcus Abney-Hastings heaped praise on the 163cm playmaker.
“Jess is probably our most important player,” he said.
“We’re really strong inside the contest and we’ve got players like Brit (Gutknecht) and Gabby (Newton) that really put a lot of heat on around the ball, but with Fitzy’s run-and-carry and really good ball use, she’s probably our most important player.
“Her speed off the mark and the way she takes the game on is absolutely electric – you can’t teach that. We’re really blessed to have (her) in our corner.”
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Part of the team’s leadership group for two seasons already, Fitzgerald is aiming to take on “a big leadership role” for her top-age year in 2020 – and while she’ll be part of the premiership defence, several talented Knights top-agers played their last games for the club on the weekend.
Highly-rated Northern captain Gabrielle Newton is one of those players. She’ll now turn her attention to potentially representing Vic Metro at the NAB AFL Women’s Under-18 Championships and graduating to senior level in the Swisse Wellness VFL Women’s later in the year.
However, Newton said the unity created within the 2018-19 Knights cohort will remain among the group.
“It’s hugely sad (to be leaving), because we’re a whole family,” Newton said.
“I know this team’s never going to be the same again and as top-agers we’re moving on, but we’ve just enjoyed our time together.”
Fellow leader Britney Gutknecht described Northern’s final training session before the Grand Final as “emotional”, as the club’s top-agers reflected on their journey together over several years.
“Playing with Gabby is unreal,” Gutknecht said. “She’s a future star of the game, so to be playing alongside her and knowing that hopefully we’ll cross paths again down the track, it’s unreal.
“Hopefully (we all) go on to bigger and better things and the Knights legacy still lives on after we leave.”
Another top-age premiership star in Nell Morris-Dalton capped her journey with three important majors against the Cannons – backing up a match-winning four-goal performance against the Eastern Ranges in the preliminary final.
“Coming off the loss (to the Geelong Falcons) last year, it just feels so good to win,” Morris-Dalton said. “I just wanted it so badly for the girls.
“Finishing it off with them is just such a good end to my junior football. I’m very happy with that.”