By sports editor Russell Bennett
West Gippsland product Caleb Serong’s draft dream has come true, selected by Fremantle with pick #8 in tonight’s first round of the AFL Draft.
And his imminent move across to the west was made that much easier by the draft selection announced immediately before his.
“I met Hayden (Young, from the Stingrays, picked at #7 also by the Dockers) in under-16s at Vic Country and I’ve been lucky enough to play with him the past couple of years. He’s a great player, and we’ve got a great friendship off the field as well. I’m really excited to head to Fremantle with him,” Serong told Fox Footy’s Sarah Olle just after hearing his name read out on stage by AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan.
“It’s been good to have him to bounce things off this year as well.”
Serong is also a prodigiously-talented cricketer, but ultimately opted to pursue his footy dream instead.
“I just love the physicality of football,” he said.
Serong said he did expect some challenges to arise out of moving across the country to play for the Dockers, but was quick to add: “I’m pretty prepared to move across to Fremantle, being away from home the past couple of years. I’m looking forward to moving over, and getting stuck into it.”
Western Bulldogs icon Brad Johnson, multiple premiership winning former North Melbourne star David King, and West Australian Football Commission talent pathways manager Michael Ablett raved about Serong’s selection.
“In the best versus the best (at the national carnival), he showed plenty of class” Johnson told Fox Footy’s draft coverage, while Ablett compared him to Richmond premiership hero Dion Prestia.
“He’s got incredible game-sense and footy smarts, and what separates a player like Serong is his ability to use both sides of his body.”
The Dockers know full-well they have a building block for the future because Serong is a footy perfectionist. The last thing he ever wants to hear is “keep doing what you’re doing”.
He’s continually on the hunt for ways to improve his game – acting as a sponge for any advice he can soak up.
It’s that trait, among others, that has the former St Paul’s student and Warragul footballer so well placed to succeed in the top flight.
The hard, uncompromising midfielder is a star seriously on the rise – there’s no two ways about that.
He was this year named Vic Country’s Most Valuable Player, and received All-Australian honours in the NAB Under 18 National Championships.
He also co-captained the side, coached by former Gippsland Power mentor Leigh Brown, which came agonisingly close to winning the title – pipped at the final hurdle by Western Australia.
Serong’s leadership – particularly by example – is clearly one of his standout qualities, and has been all through his staggering rise over recent seasons.
The Gazette spoke with Serong in 2017, after a badly broken collarbone he sustained as a 16-year-old still failed to dissuade selectors from picking him in the Vic Country squad just two weeks post-surgery.
He starred in that subsequent national carnival in Queensland.
“Back in the under-16s I was relying on what I’d already done and what they’d already seen to make the team,” he explained earlier this year in another chat with the Gazette.
“Once I got to the championships, I just wanted to prove to them that they’d made the right decision to show faith in me. They kept telling me that the reason they picked me was because I was good enough, and they backed me in.”
Another show of faith, then from Brown and former long-time Gippsland Power talent manager Peter Francis, saw him selected in the under-18s for the Power later that year.
And his rise has been meteoric since. So much so, that he was among the first crop of prodigiously-talented youngsters to hear their names called out in the draft’s first round.
And it’s all come about through sheer, relentless hard work and determination.
It hasn’t all been easy, and the advice he’s received hasn’t all been easy to stomach.
But he’s taken it all on board in his quest to improve.
Serong knows it’s about more than taking his chances. It’s about taking even the half-chances along the way.
“Sometimes that full chance never comes,” he said.
“You might only get one game or a quarter to really stand up in and make your mark.
“If you go alright, then they’ll keep picking you. That’s when you take the opportunities you get and try to make the most of them.”
Last year, Serong had a heart-to-heart about his game with Brown, Power high performance manager Matt Ross, and AFL Academy coach and Brisbane Lions icon Luke Power.
“They just said I was playing really good footy and they were happy with that side of things, but it was just my body shape – they wanted to see if I could trim down a little bit,” Serong explained.
“I was pretty fit last year – my GPS numbers were up and that sort of thing – but it was just about trying to take it to the next level so I could make it to more contests out on the field.”
So, as he always does, he took that advice to heart and over the 2019 off season did everything in his power to get himself into the best shape possible.
“People like Luke Power, Browny, and Matty Ross showing interest in me and giving me some of their advice, and what they think I should improve on, has really helped me,” he said.
“I just want honest feedback on what I can work on because I’ll never be satisfied – I always want to improve. Getting fitter and trimming up over the pre-season has really helped me through the year.”
Serong explained the modifications he’s made.
“I kept putting on size (in the gym) so it wasn’t necessarily fat – it was muscle – so it was just about getting leaner and doing a bit more cardio, so boxing and bike riding rather than just doing bicep curls,” he said.
“It’s a fine line between doing too much, and doing too little.
“It just comes back to listening to people. You can’t just go through life thinking you know it all because a lot of time you don’t. Listening to that advice you get is really important.
“I want something I can work on to keep improving. As soon as you get satisfied or complacent, that’s when everyone either catches up to you, or you go backwards.”
In 2019, Serong divided his footballing time between Geelong Grammar, the Gippsland Power, and Vic Country – and his maturity in dealing with the workload and expectations placed upon him just continued to impress more and more along the way.
It boiled down to more than just his on-field performances on game days – but also his work ethic at training, and even with his schoolwork at Geelong Grammar.
“You have to be mature like that,” he said.
“You do get out what you put in, and that’s something I live by for sure.”
The whirlwind of 2019, and his stellar performances along the way, were given a head-start by his performance in the Future Stars game on grand final day last year.
Serong’s approach remains consistent, whether it was at school footy for Geelong this year, in the NAB League for the Power, at national carnival level for Vic Country, or – no doubt – when it comes to the AFL moving forward.
“I definitely wouldn’t have become the leader I am without listening and talking, and asking questions from other people at whatever level,” he explained.
On-field, Serong’s trademark attributes – such as his strong and fast hands, his leadership, his footy smarts, his goal-sense, and his ability to take a strong contested grab – speak for themselves.
But it’s his continual endeavour to improve that not only defines him now, but will well into the future.
“When you put something in place to work on, you focus on that – I’m focusing on the team at training, not what could happen down the track,” he said in recent times.
“In games it’s the same thing – all I’m doing is focusing on winning with the team.
“The rest will take care of itself… as long as you just focus on the next thing in front of you and doing whatever you can to improve.
“There’s nothing else you can do except play good footy and train hard, and try to be a good person.”
Serong’s Gippsland Power team mate Sam Flanders was another draft standout in the first round, taken by Gold Coast with pick #11, while former Beaconsfield, Haileybury and Dandenong Stingrays star Cody Weightman was picked up by the Western Bulldogs with pick #15.