'Fire Starters' is a series of in-depth feature stories on some of our top prospects in 2022, exploring their junior careers, their upbringing, their Dragons journey and aspirations for the future, written by Dylan Bolch and Nathan Sepe.
By Dylan Bolch
Zoe Barbakos’ meteoric rise through the footballing ranks to become Hawthorn’s second ever Hawthorn AFLW signing has been inspiring.
Where it all started
Appearing on the Dragons Den Podcast, Barbakos spoke about how the past 18 months have been a whirlwind for her.
The livewire small forward only began her footballing journey last year but playing sport her entire life meant that her transition into Australian Rules football was seamless.
“I started playing footy last year,” she said.
“I have an older brother who played footy, growing up supporting Collingwood I’ve always watched the footy but never really had the time to play it.
“In Year 9 I played it at school for a term, so played six games a year in Year 9 and 10.
“An opportunity to play for Beaumaris last year in the VAFA came about and the team played quite well and made the prelims before the season was cut short.”
Barbakos’ on-field performances for Beaumaris laid the platform for her to begin her footballing career, with VFLW club the Southern Saints offering for Barbakos to trial with them after some impressive performances for Beaumaris.
“I got asked to trial for Southern Saints, being affiliated with the Sandringham Dragons they told me about that program too and said that it would be in my best interests to have a go there.
“It all started from there.”
Zoe Barbakos gets a kick away during her early days at Beaumaris. Photo: VAFA
Growing up, Barbakos lived and breathed sport.
Barbakos was an elite tennis player in her youth having featured at club, state, and national levels.
She was also a handy netballer, reaching representative levels from Under 11s to Under 15s.
“I have played tennis since I was five years old, that was my main sport, as well as netball.
“The coordination stuff helped, speed definitely and agility, that helps especially for me playing in the forward line.”
Barbakos noted that the learnings she took from playing sport at such a young age helped her in her journey throughout the footballing pathways.
“Dealing with setbacks such as injuries and if you get a no how you deal with that.
“But they’re completely different sports, especially fitness wise.
“Tennis is more sprinting, so I’ve built up my endurance for footy.
“Playing netball helped with the teamwork side of things, playing on a larger football field, you need to have trust in your teammates.
“All of my family and friends were really supportive in me playing sport and that continued even when it was quite an abrupt switch to footy.”
Barbakos after winning the Girls U14 Singles competition (Tennis World White). Photo: Tennis World Australia
Joining the Dragons
In December 2021, Barbakos linked up with the Sandringham Dragons pathway program prior to Christmas.
A handful of training sessions fuelled her drive to succeed before returning from the holiday break in January ahead of the NAB League Girls season.
Barbakos’ NAB League campaign was brilliant as she became an integral part of Sandringham’s forward 50 set-up.
Across five outings, Barbakos booted eight goals and averaged 10.6 disposals, 2.4 marks and 2.8 tackles a game.
But her impact cannot be stated purely by just looking at her stats line.
Barbakos has a nous around goals that coaches cannot teach and a desire to take the game on and weave in and out of traffic to create scoring opportunities for the team.
For a small forward, she is also strong above her head and acts as a spearhead target going inside 50.
Her performance against the Gippsland Power was clinical, where she slotted four goals from 14 possessions and did not give the Power defenders an inch by applying manic pressure.
Barbakos playing for the Sandringham Dragons. Photo: AFL Photos
Vic Metro selection
Her form for the Dragons saw her selected in the Under 18s Vic Metro squad, a team which features the best footballers from the metropolitan region.
“That was actually a big surprise.
“I knew there was a Metro squad, but I didn’t know much about it.
“It was really great to have a few Dragons girls in the program.
“I was really lucky to have ‘Kiwi’ too, being the forward line coach at Dragons and at Metro.”
Assistant coach Lisa ‘Kiwi’ Roper has been one of the biggest influences on Barbakos’ short career to date.
“Just teaching me about the game and the structures, she has definitely been a big influence in how I have played.
“At Dragons and Metro there are different structures and ways of ball movement, so learning to adapt to the game at a higher level she really helped with.
“Dragons is a high level, but Metro is very intense, I needed to be up to the challenge.”
It would have been easy for such an inexperienced Barbakos to feel intimidated moving into the Metro program but after the initial training sessions, she felt comfortable in her position.
“By the time it came to the game it wasn’t too bad.
“The first training, I knew of the girls from when we’d played against them, but the first training was really intimidating.
“I was a bit nervous because it was all so fast paced.
“It was a lot, a good learning experience though.
In her solo AFLW National Championships match, she was one of Metro’s most dangerous forwards booting a team-high three goals and being named in the best players in the Metro’s clash against Vic Country.
Barbakos alongside Sofia Hurley, Bridie Hipwell, Keely Coyne, Georgia Foran and Lisa 'Kiwi' Roper after her match for Vic Metro. Photo: Supplied.
Hawthorn’s second ever AFLW recruit
In late March, Barbakos was unveiled as Hawthorn’s second ever AFLW recruit.
At the time, Hawthorn AFLW List Manager Mitchell Cashion said that the club was looking forward to “the energy and competitiveness she brings in the forward half of the ground”.
Hawthorn’s interest in Barbakos began after her Dragons debut against arch-rivals the Oakleigh Chargers in Round 2.
“It came about after my first game, there was a Hawthorn recruiter there in Mitch Cashion who was watching,” said Barbakos.
“He messaged me asking for an interview which happened after the Oakleigh game.
“Over the course of the month, I did a few tests, medical screening, ECG and had a few more chats.
“It was actually the Friday before Metro they said I would be signing with Hawthorn.
“We had a quick chat and he just wanted to take the pressure off me, making sure I wasn’t too nervous going out there for my first game with Metro.
“It was very flattering; I knew he would’ve done many interviews, so I didn’t get too comfortable, but it definitely helped me build confidence for the remaining games with the Dragons.”
Barbakos recalled being “quite shocked” at the time and immediately contacting her family and friends to share the news.
“I was very shocked, I think my first thought was being under the coaching influence of Bec Goddard, she’s very highly rated and I can’t wait to start working with her.
“Definitely messaged Mum, Dad, brother and friends straight after on the way home.
“It was all quite quick, especially with the AFL Women’s next season being moved forward, it all sort of happened in the space of two months.”
“It’s a great feeling, it’s gone really quick and hasn’t really set in.
“Being signed with Bridget Deed and Sophie Locke who are so highly rated and playing under the coaching of Bec Goddard and Cherie O’Neill for the VFLW, there’s still a lot to learn but it’s a great opportunity.”
Barbakos becomes Hawthorn's second AFLW signing. Photo: Hawthorn AFLW
The growth of the women’s game
The AFLW has just concluded its seventh iteration and the game is reaching new heights every season.
Barbakos said that she loved how the women’s game was growing so rapidly and cannot wait to be a part of it.
“In the seventh season for AFLW they’ve done extremely well and its only getting bigger which means more opportunities for girls all over the country and international girls as well.”
The next AFLW season is set to feature all 18 AFL clubs after Hawthorn, Essendon, Port Adelaide and Sydney became the latest quartet to be awarded AFLW licenses.
“As a woman in sport, it is definitely great to see.
“On our Hawthorn VFLW team we have all female coaches, having them to look up to as past players and very highly regarded coaches is great.”
As for advice for young aspiring footballers, Barbakos’ message was simple.
“Enjoy it, whatever sport you do, it’s important to enjoy it because that’s what counts.
“I’ve made a lot of friends, not only from footy but also from tennis and netball and other sports I’ve played.
“I’d say that’s the main thing, when you lose that enjoyment, you won’t flourish as a player.
“If you enjoy it more, you want to go out there and do an extra training session and go for an extra run.
So where to now for Barbakos?
“VFLW will finish up, hopefully we can make finals because we are doing quite well at the moment.
There is still speculation as to what the next season of AFLW looks like, but one thing for certain is that when that time comes around, Barbakos will be ready to make an immediate impact in the Brown and Gold.
“I can’t wait to run out with the girls in my debut for the Hawks.
“I’d like to kick a few goals and to continue to flourish as a player and grow under the influence of Bec and the other coaches."
To listen to the Dragons Den Podcast and hear more about Zoe Barbakos' journey visit the Sandringham Dragons Spotify or YouTube pages.