As Oakleigh Chargers’ midfield coach last season, Wayne Cripps was solely focused on the club’s progression and his players’ wellbeing.
So much so that he never let himself get swept up in outstanding individual performances from opposition players.
Well, almost never. Throughout the entire season, he circled one opposition name, making a mental note to keep an eye on her progress: Sofia Hurley.
Playing as an underager, Hurley established herself in the young Dragons’ midfield in 2021, playing seven games, after three where she was thrown around positionally the previous year.
The Port Melbourne Colts junior complements her ball use with a rare mix of endurance and speed.
She impressed Cripps, now head coach of Sandringham, when she dominated a midfield battle that contained Charlie Rowbottom, Amanda Ling and Eliza James, all of whom were drafted last year.
“I remember thinking ‘who is this girl? She is a jet and one I want to follow’,” Cripps recalled.
“I marked her down thinking ‘we need to stop this girl next time we play her.”
“She just looks like such a competitor and her movement and ability to take the game on with her speed were things I really liked.”
Photo: AFL Photos
Coaching her for the first time on Saturday, in round one against Tasmania, she churned out another high-level performance, gathering 23 disposals, seven tackles and six inside fifties. She was clean in close and willing to back herself when given space, immediately establishing herself as a player to watch in 2022.
Tasmania had all the play in the last 15 minutes as they threatened to snatch victory, but Hurley willed herself to repeated contests despite spending 100% of game time on the field, entirely in the engine room.
The defensive accountability rewarded Hurley for her sweltering running sessions on late Gold Coast afternoons in the new year, as she spent the period at her family holiday house overlooking the Queensland ocean.
“The big thing for me was her ability to run both ways,” Cripps said of her round one performance.
“She was happy to run offensively and defensively from the contest, she did a great job supporting the backline and when she got the ball she was happy to take the game on, so I thought she had that real balance in her game.”
Coming off an interrupted preseason that saw the aspiring architect prioritise year 12 exams in November before schoolies, Hurley’s ability to switch on and play her role substantiates her belief that she plays her best footy when she has balance in her life.
“I feel like I play better when I’m just going through it for fun,” Hurley said.
“I’m still trying hard because I want to get the most out of it but I don’t want to put expectation and pressure on myself.”
Cripps was not the only one with high hopes for Hurley this year; as expected by everyone expect Hurley herself, she cruised to Sandringham’s best and fairest, 37 votes clear of second placed Kiana Lynch.
She was also an elite ball winner when playing for Vic Metro’s under 17’s resulting in a promotion to the under 18’s side where she was solid on the wing and in attack.
When asked about her individual goals leading into the season, Hurley brushed off her draft prospects, and apologised for her cliché team-first mantra.
“I want to make sure I develop the relationships and the friendships so we can mesh as a team and get as much out of the program as possible,” Hurley said.
“Hopefully we can make finals as well. I really want to make finals with these girls.”
Perhaps that happy-go-lucky attitude is critical to Hurley’s success. As a 12-year-old, she ran the second-fastest three kilometre time in the state but would always bog herself down with pressure, limiting her enjoyment.
Photo: Rookie Me Central
Basketball was an omnipresence in Sofia’s household growing up, as her two older brothers played at a local level, shaping her childhood dream of reaching college basketball. But soon after reaching a representative level, off-field elements sapped the joy, resulting in her giving the sport away in favour of a more streamlined approach to footy.
A grounding in each of those sports has shaped the way she plays her footy, simplified her approach and sharpened her competitiveness.
“I think if I focussed on it and thought ‘oh, I really need to play well today,’ I don’t think I would have as good a performance as if I had a clearer mind. I’m always going to try my best but I need to stay true to myself,” Hurley said, a view endorsed by Cripps.
While also backing Hurley’s individual preparation, Sandy assistant coach Lisa ‘Kiwi’ Roper believes that bringing her drive to the fore is critical.
“The best way to go about is just to remind her what her goal is. She’s so competitive and she’s a bit cheeky once you get to know her so it’s important she enjoys her football but also reshifts her focus and understands where she can get to,” Roper said.
After training at the high-intensity Vic Metro camp in November, Hurley said she was keen to capitalise on pre-training craft. She has specific areas she wants to address in a year that she wants to show her versatility as a slightly built midfielder that can impact in the forward 50.
“I want to be more defensive and bring a bit of pressure inside fifty so I can be fiercer as a forward,” Hurley said.
“In the midfield I want to be getting to every contest and doing even more than that. Doing the extra 20 metre sprint even when I’m exhausted.
“I also want to back myself to go for my marks during a game.”
Leading into the season, Hurley said that she believed she had another level to go to with her footy and her round one performance has provided her with the perfect platform to launch.
“I was very focussed on school last season so footy was secondary - hopefully this season I can put a bit more thought and priority into footy,” she said.