by Clare Algozin
On February 21, the AFL held its women’s combine in Sydney, Australia. The New York Magpies had the honor of being represented by two of our female players: veteran, Kim Hemenway and long-time player and first-year Magpie, Bec Pearce. The event was part of the league’s national talent search in preparation for the first professional women’s league to begin in 2017.
Participants underwent fitness testing including standing and running vertical jumps, agility, 20m sprint and the beep test in addition to their overall skills on the field. Both women gave an outstanding performance in Sydney and demonstrated their competitive fitness and game skills.
During the fitness testing, Kim outperformed the other participants in the vertical jump. “I think what surprised me the most [about the combine] was how many individuals actually played footy before they turned 18,” said Kim. “I figured Katie, Bec, and I would be the only people with actual footy experience, but once they asked former footy players to raise their hands I was like ‘OK I better turn on my game because this isn’t for beginners.’”
After a long day of testing in Sydney, both Kim and Bec were offered places in the female state academies designed to support players and develop skills and will be placed in state league clubs. For Kim, this news means an opportunity to develop her skills at a more competitive level in the birthplace of the sport.
Kim first learned about AFL while stationed in Australia with the US Navy and began playing a while later with the North Carolina Tigers’ men after discovering their team on Craigslist. Kim was approached at the 2009 Nationals Tournament by the Lady Magpies’ co-captains at the time Christina Licata and Andrea Casillas. Until then she had been training with the men of the Tigers.
“Honestly, the Magpies are probably the only reason I’m even still playing,” explained Kim. “When I started out I was still in school and couldn’t afford to travel, and I assumed if I did make it to Nationals it wouldn’t have been okay for me to play in the men’s division like I had been throughout the season. From Day One the Magpies have been very supportive, whether it be financially or just as a team.”
Since joining the team, Kim has traveled all over the country to represent the Magpies at games, tournaments and at Nationals. But she’s had to manage all of her own training in LA and has worked diligently to find ways to improve.
“I don’t think there’s ever a time when a person can say, ‘Ok I’m good enough, I don’t need to improve anything.” Every year I find something new to work on, whether it be preparing for a new position or improving some part of my game. I’m eight years in and this year I’m starting the Kick Builders program, which basically breaks down the absolute basic skill of simply kicking the footy. I’m going to start from scratch so I can improve my kick. There’s always some way to get better. Being comfortable with your skill level is a failure in my eyes when it comes to playing sports.”
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Kim, may be that in addition to her commitment to improving her own skills, she improves on the field as a team player despite being unable to attend regular trainings with the rest of the Magpies.
“In terms of coaching, Christina is absolutely fantastic,” Kim said of Lady Magpies coach Christina Licata. “I think every coach we have had throughout the years has made an impact…but having someone consistently there and someone who loves the game and wants us to succeed has been key the past two years. I don’t necessarily get to see the training side of things because I live so far away, but when I come up for tournaments it’s easy to see the progress.”
Kim has always searched for ways to grow as a player and increase her competitive edge on the field. “Kim has grown immensely as a footy player over the past eight years,” said Coach Licata. “While she has always been a key forward for the Magpies, this season she stepped into a new position at ruck. Taking on a new role was initially difficult after so many years as a forward. Splitting her time in the midfield and forward lines, Kim met the challenge with flying colors. As a result, her understanding of the game and her confidence as a player has improved. At heart, Kim is and will remain a forward. However, she is a force to reckoned with wherever she is on the field.”
In addition to playing for the Magpies, Kim has also played for the US Freedom team since 2012. But it was during a trip to Melbourne to compete in the 2014 International Cup, that she set her sights on playing in Australia. After her impressive performance at the women’s combine in Sydney, this dream could become a reality and Kim has a lot to look forward to playing on a team full of Australians.
“I think even basic things like learning the Australian terminology during a game, or learning the style of play will be fun. Americans have a different way of preparing for sports, and the style of play is very different as well…It will be cool to play with people who basically grew up playing the game. Instead of feeling like I’m a vet I will probably feel brand new and that’s very motivating.”
As both a coach and a former teammate, Coach Licata has watched Kim grow as a player since joining the Magpies and is excited for her next great challenge playing in Australia. “Watching Kim grow as a player and become a better and better teammate over the years has been amazing. Her drive to improve her game is impressive. I’ve watched her dedication to this team grow stronger and stronger through the years. One thing is for sure, Kim bleeds black and white.”
There are still a few challenges to overcome before Kim can move her life to Australia. She’ll need a job and visa but she’s not letting these things stop her. In the meantime, she’s working as hard as ever to get ready for this season with the Magpies.
Bec Pearce grew up kicking a footy with her brother in Victoria. At the time, she wasn’t aware of any teams that weren’t made up entirely of boys, but when she was 15, she was recruited by a friend who played for a girls’ team in Pearcedale, VIC. Over the next few years she primarily played for Berwick and joined the Youth Girls Academy where she participated in AFL Victoria Youth Girls competitions.
But after she turned 18, the opportunities to keep playing at an elite level were scarce and unpaid. “It was always my dream to play professionally. But at the time, a professional women’s league seemed like it was far from being developed and no one knew yet what it would look like. I knew I wanted to travel and get my degree so I had to turn my focus away from football.”
Bec traveled to the US in 2010 to work for a summer as a camp counselor in Northern Michigan. “A friend of mine, another Australian I met who would be working at the same camp, told me about a women’s AFL tournament going on in New York before our job started. We thought it would be fun to jump in and play.” Bec joined the Minnesota Freeze women to play against the New York Magpies, the team she would later join. During another trip to the United States in 2011 Bec played with the Minnesota Freeze again. This time, in the USAFL National Tournament in Austin, TX. In the spring of 2015, Bec moved to New York and reached out to captain Andrea Casillas about joining the Magpies.
“I was amazed at how immediately welcoming the Magpies were. I wasn’t just jumping in on a few games – they made me a part of the team. These women are so dedicated to learning this sport and building a team and community.”
She played with the Lady Pies in the Montreal tournament and Boston, but during the summer had to go back to Australia to finish her degree at LaTrobe University in Bendigo. Despite missing the rest of the season, Bec was able to make a brief trip with the help and support of the team to rejoin the Lady Pies at Nationals.
“Bec is one of the best footballers and team members that I have ever had the pleasure of coaching,” said Coach Licata of Pearce. “She is a true teammate – selfless on the field and dedicated to making herself and those around her better football players.”
“There were obviously differences playing for an American team. Most people came from different sports backgrounds, so the flow of the games was very different but exciting. Just because I grew up playing this game didn’t mean that I could relax at all, and in fact was a huge learning opportunity. I had to to adapt to a different style of playing as well as a different position. In Australia I almost always played as a half-back, but here I was playing in the forward line a lot of the time.”
After learning that the AFL would be starting a women’s professional league in 2017, Bec jumped at the opportunity to get back to competing in Australia. For her, the invitation to participate in the academies is a chance to play at a top level and a stepping stone to achieving her dream of playing the sport she loves professionally.
Although she joined her teammate, Kim, in the Sydney talent search, Bec will be participating in the state academy in Victoria, where she currently lives and works as an Outdoor Education Leader. “I’m so excited to get back into playing at home,” she said. “After taking a few years off to travel and finish uni, I have a lot of work to do to get back to that level of competition, but I’m looking forward to being on the field again.”
“I’m so thankful to the Magpies. Training regularly and being a member of such a dedicated team of women really reminded me of how much I love this sport. I’m really going to miss playing with them, but I’m so grateful that they welcomed me into their community.”
For her part, Lady Magpies coach Christina Licata is excited about the opportunities ahead of Kim and Bec. “Honestly, the best part of working with them is seeing all of that passion for the game come to fruition on the field. These chicks are goal kicking machines and it’s a blast to watch.”
With the start of the 2016 season right around the corner, Coach Licata expressed her excitement for the two women, and for the season ahead of the Lady Magpies.
“Both Bec and Kim are major influencers on the field and were key to our success in 2015. They scored over 30 percent of the team’s 76 goals in the season, and while the way we play our game won’t change, their absence will surely be felt. The Lady Pies have a talented group of veterans and rookies who will need to step up, kick a bit straighter, and convert their efforts at the footy into goals on the scoreboard. As always, we will be looking for new talent to fill these really big shoes.”
As the AFL women’s league begins to take shape for the 2017 season, Kim and Bec will have a big year ahead of them as they train in the state academies, and join teams, to prepare for the draft. “As I say before every game, trust yourselves and your teammates,” says Coach Licata to the women. “This will be the key to your talents shining through amongst steep competition. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for you and you deserve it. Put it all out on the line. I couldn’t be prouder of you both. The Pies are behind you 100 percent. Side by side.”