Of the seven Dragons to represent Vic Metro’s undefeated side in the 2019 Under 16s National Carnival, four of them were re-selected in the initial expanded squad for 2021’s Under 19s campaign.
Of the players who missed out, two, in Angus McLennan and Lachlan Brooks, missed significant portions of this year due to injury.
The other was Lochie Benton, who played every game for the Dragons in 2021, but was simply overlooked.
As a regular selection for South Metro Junior Football League’s interleague side growing up, and having worn the ‘big V’ previously, playing in all three games in the 2019 carnival, getting passed-over certainly stung for the classy St Bede’s product.
“I think I definitely used it as motivation and realised that there’s, not necessarily something I need to change, but I used it as a bit of fuel to try and improve and see where I’m at in the latter half of the year,” Benton said.
What was Benton’s loss in missing the opportunity to play in the carnival against the cream of the crop of his age group was ultimately the Dragons’ gain.
In rounds one to five, he averaged 16 disposals playing largely as a high half-forward. Come round 10 and the opportunity to have a full game in the midfield, his production skyrocketed, and he never looked back.
Against the Oakleigh Chargers at RSEA Park, he had 26 disposals and polled the maximum available votes in the best-and-fairest count that week. In the remaining three games, he racked-up 24, 28 and 26 disposals, respectively, including another BOG performance against Greater Western Victoria in round 15.
Polling in seven of nine games, including in each of the final five, he stormed home in the best-and-fairest count to finish a close third behind St Bede’s classmate Finn Callaghan, and defender, Luke Cleary.
Particularly impressive about his season was that he was playing in a new position to what he had been accustomed to throughout his juniors at Dingley Dingoes Junior Football Club. Rather than doing the chasing, now it was he who was being chased.
“When I was in the under 16s with the Vic Metro carnival I started at half-back and then went to half-forward for a few games and I was successful, so I just wanted to try again this year and see if I was able to replicate it,” Benton said.
“I thought my assets were more, like I would be able to show them up forward and try to kick a few goals.
“It didn’t really work out, I think I kicked about 2.9 this year, but I’ve had a lot of opportunities to kick goals. I think I just wanted to be a bit more dangerous up forward.
“It was more difficult at the start of the year when I was half-forward, trying to make an impact with low possession numbers, but when I went through the midfield I was happy that I was able to find more of the ball and use my running ability a bit more.”
As he acclimatised to a different end of the park he made a focus at training and before games to practice gathering the ball at the 50 metre arc, steady, and find a target inside 50, or goal on the run.
In a top-of-the-table clash against the Rebels in what would be the final game of the year, with the heat on early in the last quarter as the Dragons held a narrow lead, Benton received a handball from Cleary as he broached the forward 50.
Rather than blazing away and nailing the goal, he spotted key forward Will Vesely on his own at the top of the goal square, dinking the ball in his direction for an easy mark and subsequent goal to push the margin to 24 points.
With an understanding from senior coach Jackson Kornberg that his disposal was one thing that counted him out of representative honours, a subtle fist-pump and high-fives from his teammates as Vesely took the mark confirmed a step in the right direction for 18-year-old.
“He (Kornberg) kind of said, it was more like, a bit of my decision making and ball use, try to improve that. That’s probably the main one that I need to work on next year as well, just to slow down and make sure that I’m not rushing with my kicks and have better efficiency I guess.
“Be a bit more damaging as well.”
Reviewing Benton’s journey to this point, a pattern begins to emerge; when given a challenge or new circumstances, he’s quick to adjust, and warms to the pressure.
In May, during the boys’ NAB League scheduled break for the end of the girls’ season, Benton played two games for Dingley Football Netball Club’s seniors, a side that has won four of the previous five Division one premierships in the Southern Football Netball League, and like the Dragons, were setting the pace again in 2021.
In just his second game, he was named best-afield by the coaching staff in a loss to a Bentleigh side including fellow Dragon, Luke Nankervis.
“…playing seniors at Dingley was great, because it gave me the chance to play against those bigger bodies. It probably takes me, even at NAB League this year it probably took me a few games to get the speed of the game, and then once I was used to that it might have taken me half the season but once I got used to it, I felt like I could really take advantage of it and perform well.
“That was the same at Dingley; that first game was a bit wet, I remember, and I wasn’t used to it with the bigger bodies but it took me a game or so and I was able to play a little bit better in the second one, and I got a few more touches that day, which was nice.”
The trend begun at under 10s at the Dingoes, where he played two seasons in one year, stepping-up to play both under 10s and 11s and contribute to a premiership for the older group.
Such adaptability augers well for the future and prospect of playing amongst more esteemed company going forward.
“I just want to play at the highest level that I can.”