Sandringham Dragons coach Wayne Cripps has coined the nickname “loose lips” for Ben Hempel.
The 18-year-old has a happy knack of finding things out and spreading the lighthearted banter, important to the culture of the club.
“He’s come out of his shell more than a lot of players, he’s got a fair bit of character about him,” Cripps said.
“Every single training session, I reckon he’s made me laugh so far – he’s always got some sort of silly-witted comment. He brings that real balance from a team morale point of view.”
At a recent Dragons training session, Hempel told a teammate to call him Cam Smith; both have a mullet and are good on the golf course, he reckons.
A close mate’s birthday party got Hempel interested in golf in late January and ever since it has been a good outlet for him, providing balance.
“It’s the perfect way to spend four or five hours, talk smack hit balls and have fun,” he said.
Edithvale Golf Club gets a fair portion of his pay-packet from his part-time job at Woolies as he goes down frequently with friends but those rounds are interspersed with hits at the driving range with dad, Colin.
“At the start I was losing to everyone but I came home and practised with Dad at the driving range so I could get better.
“It was fun but also addictive and I will now arrogantly claim myself as the top golfer out of everyone and the boys know it as well, they won’t hear the end of it,” he laughs.
Despite going down with an ankle complaint at the first Vic Metro training session which has since hindered him, Vic Metro coach Jason Davenport has seen that same competitive streak present on the footy field.
“Hempel goes about his business as well as anyone – he provides real flexibility from a positional standpoint and appears to be one of those players who has a determination to get his job done," Davenport said.
“He’s ultra-competitive and influences the play in the air or on the ground and will really open up the game from an offensive standpoint but will really give us a lot defensively as well.”
Making the Vic Metro squad off the back of his explosiveness and dynamism has him satisfied with the first portion of the season – one of his major season goals was to make the squad.
The Sandy coaching staff exposed him to a different position, educating him on the wing running patterns which have been positive for the Sandy coach so far.
“Sometimes he won’t get used but you’ve got to keep running up and back even if the ball stays on the other side of the ground and you’re not getting reward for effort but his GPS numbers back up that he is buying into the power running.
“Having had an impact in the first month, he’s only going to get better and better the more games he gets under his belt,” Cripps said in May.
Hempel is becoming accustomed to the role where there can be a tendency to drift in and out of games, or lose shape to chase some involvement.
“His running patterns have been really good but the way we move the ball, weren’t using the wingers at all, just rushing it out of the pack and dumping it out a bit and very straight line,” Cripps said after the Dragons’ first block of games.
In that time, Hempel did not have the impact he would have liked; the wingman’s run and effort was not always used, but Cripps emphasised that they needed to continue to produce and they would eventually get rewarded.
There was growth throughout that first block of games, though, with an 18-possession outing in round three demonstrating the level he can reach.
“We obviously know he can play down back but the reason we put him on the wing was to highlight his speed and his beautiful long kick so trying to turn him into that 70-80 metre player,” Cripps said.
“I know when he’s down back he likes to load the gun straight away so we want to get him to get the ball, put it under his arm, run 15 metres then kick it.”
Averaging just under 13 possessions a game demands him to be an impact player.
With ball in hand, he wants to be bold and hurt the opposition with attacking play.
The coaching staff have given him a licence to run: “he’ll never get a spray for getting caught holding the ball because he looks to take the game on,” said the senior coach.
When playing for Vic Metro, Hempel will play as an intercepting half-back where his reading of the play and decision making and execution by foot will come to the fore.
There is a belief among many that it is where he plays his best footy, having played the majority of his high-end footy prior to this year in that position.
Playing against the Colgate Young Guns, a team made up players 1-2 years older than Hempel, he took a slew of intercept marks and looked assured in the backline – form he will look to replicate throughout the championships.
AFL clubs are yet to directly contact Hempel, but there is clear appeal and his management at Connors’ Sports and the Dragons coaching staff have given some positive indication.
“I always want to do better but I don’t think I’m going too badly at the moment - I probably just would like to get involved for the whole game, there’s patches in games where I am out of it a little bit,” Hempel said.
“I’ve got to lock in now. I want to show my athleticism and kicking and just make good of all my touches.”
"I need to have the mentality of: if you miss the kick, you miss the kick, I’d rather make more of an impact than, say, a bomb down the line because anyone could do that.”
Against Eastern in round seven, his marking gave him some opportunities to damage. Two weeks later, Hempel was a springboard for attacking plays, using his pace to give himself time to perfect his kicks.
In between the Sandy games have also been two games of school footy where he has split his time between the midfield and forward line and been a barometer of that side, according to coach Owen Lalor.
He got plenty of the ball and used his speed and flare and St. Bede’s cleared out the forward 50 to let him go to work inside forward 50 when he rested in attack.
From school footy, he brought that ability to hit the scoreboard to the NAB League.
A focus of his pre-training craft has been long range goals and he has been rewarded with at least one goal in each of his last three NAB League games plus a 65 metre goal for Vic Metro that showed his elegant left boot in the trial game against Vic Country.
It adds another layer to his pursuit of becoming impact player.
An ankle complaint has limited his output in recent weeks, but he will play Vic Metro’s first game and believes he has struck a positive life balance.
Prior to the start of the year, Hempel spoke of his charts to hold him accountable that were filled in throughout the season, but it is something he has eased off on – it had consumed him too much.
Ahead of round one, Hempel was so adamant that following his routine would translate to good footy.
While his eight disposal outing on limited minutes to start the season had some encouraging elements according to coaching staff - particularly given it was his first official game in a new position - the limited involvement was a sticking point for Hempel.
Now, the 18-year-old backs in his instinct as he does not want to dilute his natural personality – but insists footy will always be the top priority.
“I’m not too structured now compared to a lot of the other boys, the charts and diaries were something I thought I’d do away with,” Hempel said.
“I do game reviews and some stuff here and there but I’ve just relaxed with it because I play my best footy when I’m just being me – all the other stuff isn’t necessary.”