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Going places: Talented junior Harley Balic faces up to his biggest decision

Callum Twomey  November 16, 2015 8:15 AM

Going Places: Harley Balic Meet the half-forward who gave up a promising basketball career to pursue football

THURSDAY, JANUARY 15, 2015

HARLEY Balic isn't meant to be tackling. He is wearing an orange vest over his NAB AFL Academy training shirt, indicating he is not taking part in contact drills. His left wrist is taped, and he is in the middle of a handball exercise, offering incidental pressure to teammates.

Then his instincts kick in. Balic throws himself at a teammate and drags him to the ground. He does it again, and then a third time.

Academy assistant coach Brad Johnson likes Balic's competitiveness, but pulls him aside and directs him to the recovery group on an adjacent field. It might be the 18-year-old's last taste of full training for months.

Balic, a dynamic half-forward eligible for this year's NAB AFL Draft, is in Florida in the United States with 33 teammates for the Academy's 10-day training camp.

An early setback

Yesterday, he received some bad news. The wrist injury he has been carrying has resurfaced, and he might need surgery to fix it when he returns to Melbourne later this month.

It means he will sit out training for the rest of this camp. And, worryingly, the concern could result in more than three months on the sidelines. That would eat into the start of the season, and dent his hopes of ending the year on an AFL list.

Surgery for Harley Balic's wrist injury could mean three months on the sidelines. Picture: AFL Media

The injury happened two years ago, when Balic dunked a basketball on his school court. The Parkdale College student slipped on the way down and had to extend his arm to break the fall. As a result, his wrist took full weight of the drop.

At the time his mum, Nancy, was travelling in America, and Balic texted his dad, Eddie, to say he was in some pain. "This isn't good," Balic wrote. But he wasn't in agony, and the soreness grew into a dull pain, so he didn't have a doctor check the injury.

When Balic finally booked scans at the end of 2013 – months after the fall – his doctor took one look at the X-ray and told him he had been playing basketball and footy for months with a fractured scaphoid. He had surgery to correct the problem, and spent most of that pre-season recovering from the injury.

It didn't hurt his season too much. In 2014, Balic played 14 games for the Sandringham Dragons not knowing he was carrying a major injury, establishing himself as one of the exciting prospects to watch in 2015.

Balic in TAC Cup action for the Sandringham Dragons in 2014. Picture: AFL Media

Before games his mum would tell Harley to be careful. He'd think, 'How can I be careful? It's footy'.

At the end of the season he assumed the worst of it was behind him. But after feeling a sharp pain in his wrist at training yesterday, Academy squad physiotherapist Nick Ames informed Balic surgery might be his only option. A pin would need to be inserted to help repair the break.

"I was pretty shattered when he said that. I was angry with myself more than anything," Balic says.

"I'm hoping I wouldn’t need surgery. I've put in such a big pre-season and last year I really didn't have a pre-season at all because I'd had the first operation.

"This is the first pre-season I've really knuckled down and been able to do everything. It'd suck for that to amount to nothing."

Balic grew up in Mordialloc, a bayside suburb in Melbourne's south. His siblings like sport and are good at it too: his younger brother Cooper will probably play as a bottom-ager for the Dragons next year and also likes to strum the guitar; older brother Jesse is into science.

Harley, right, with brothers Jesse (left) and Cooper (centre). Picture: supplied

Harley set his mind solely on sports. He started playing with Mordialloc-Braeside's under-9s football team as a seven-year-old, and at the same time was playing basketball for the Sandringham Sabres.

In between, he began Milo cricket, but his parents were so busy ferrying him from one sport to another that Nancy would tell Harley the letters inviting him to train with better cricket teams because he had 'potential' were just photocopied. "They've sent them to everyone," she'd say.

One afternoon Eddie got home and was told they were heading to Bendigo that weekend for the national athletics meeting. "For what?" he asked. Balic had qualified for the high jump after an enormous leap at a local event.

Footy gets the nod

Early on, Balic was noticed more for his basketball than his football, so he leant the way of the court. He liked the one-on-one battles basketball offered. The game dominated a normal week: he would train on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, with a game on Friday night.

High leaper Harley was noticed more for his basketball than his football. Picture: supplied

But he was still fitting football in, and played each Sunday morning in the South Metro Junior Football League competition. In eight years with Mordialloc-Braeside, Balic won five best and fairest awards playing in the ruck and at half-forward. Twice he was runner-up in the League's best player award.

He could combine both sports for only so long. He had already represented Victoria at the under-16 titles in basketball and was in contention to make the under-18 team as well. You can watch his 2013 highlights package below.

But at the start of 2014, he sat down in his bedroom and wrote a list of things he wanted to achieve in his sporting year.

"I had basketball and footy listed and it was then I thought, 'Well, I better choose one'," he says.

The Dragons had invited him to train with their under-18 squad, and he made the final cut. He still hoped he could juggle both sports.

"It got to round one and it was a Friday night, and I was playing basketball later that night. I had been at Dragons training earlier when the team was posted on the board and I had been named an emergency," he says.

"I wasn't sure what to do. I played the basketball game that night and then watched the Dragons on the Saturday. Luckily they had no late outs. The next week I knew I had to choose."

Choose one: Balic's AFL ambitions came at the expense of his basketball dream. Picture: supplied

Nancy dropped him off at basketball training two nights later at Mentone Grammar. Balic approached his coach, and told him of his decision to focus on footy. He then told his 11 teammates he was leaving.

Balic slumped out of the gymnasium, grabbed his bag and started the 25-minute walk home. He phoned his mum and started crying. She offered to pick him up, but he wanted to walk to clear his head.

"I've never thought about whether I made the wrong call," he says.

Eddie was pleased. He had pushed Harley towards footy, and became nervous when people said he could play basketball at an American college. "If he did that," Eddie had thought, "Then he could meet someone, fall in love, get married, have a few babies and never come home."

Nancy thought basketball was Harley's "little boy dream". Footy was more realistic.

As a junior footy player Balic won five best and fairest awards in eight years. Picture: supplied

Three days later, Balic was picked to play in Sandringham's round-two team in a game against the Western Jets.

He kept his spot and the following week was much better against the Northern Knights, finding 20 disposals and eight marks, kicking two goals and making an impact. More people began to take notice of Balic's smarts and crafty play near goal. His promising form means he starts this year on AFL clubs' radars.

"We've got him pretty high up," one recruiter says. "Every club's different, but we've got to find ways to manufacture goals and he can do that. Harley plays very well in that area when the ball's in his zone. His kicking isn't super, but it's not terrible."

"He's very instinctive," another scout says. "He's got the movement and he's got the body size. He just needs to get more of the ball and needs to improve his running."

Balic can't wait to address some of those queries. He just hopes he will be able to do it sooner rather than later. The tour has been good, but he is keen to get home to meet his surgeon and make a decision on his wrist.

If he has to go under the knife, he wants it done as soon as possible. He has no time to waste.

"If it needs to be done it needs to be done," he says. "I'll be really disappointed if that's the case and I miss 12 weeks. This year is a big one, so I need to get out there as soon as I can."

THURSDAY, APRIL 9, 2015

IT WASN'T a tackle or a bump. It wasn't any particular kick or clean gather or sharp turn.

There wasn't one moment in Harley Balic's half of footy for the NAB AFL Academy team against Werribee's VFL team on Sunday that made him believe he could play at the top level. It was simply a culmination of all his actions.

Balic's day in an Australian guernsey ended at half-time, after he was taken off with sore groins. Coach Brenton Sanderson wants to have Balic fully fit for next week's clash with the Northern Blues.

"I know I can do it now," Balic says. "I know I can match it with these older guys." 

Instincts served Balic well, but scouts said he needed to boost his endurance. Picture: AFL Media

The last time Balic played for the Academy was on Grand Final day last year, in a curtain-raiser against an Allies team made up of draft prospects from the division two states.

He felt like "the new kid" in that game. At the Academy's induction a month earlier he barely spoke to anyone, instead standing at the back of the room with his parents.

Balic didn't know any other player in the squad and was the only one to not to have represented his state in footy.

He wasn't even sure if the coaches had seen him play before he walked on to the MCG that morning before Hawthorn destroyed the Sydney Swans, but he kicked two goals and felt much better about himself afterwards.

All clear on the injury front

Balic was thankful just to be playing last Sunday, having received positive news about his wrist. After returning home from the Academy's American training camp, he met surgeon Jason Harvey, recommended to him by the Academy's doctor, Michael Makdissi. He sourced second and third opinions, and eventually had a management plan to monitor the wrist for pain and further damage.

The plan sees him do a 'squeeze test' on the wrist before and after every game using a small apparatus. He ices it regularly, uses a bone stimulator to soothe the area, still straps it for games and tries to keep weight off it.

Balic opted for a management plan over surgery for his injured wrist. Picture: AFL Media

Harvey was happy to let Balic play on with the injury without surgery, at least until the mid-year NAB AFL Under-18 Championships are finished.

"It's the most nervous I've ever been when we went to see him, because I was worried about what it would mean for my draft chances. But I'm happy with the outcome," Balic says.

"If it's not feeling the best after the championships then it's probably better to have it looked at again, but until then I'll play. So far, I've been able to block it out pretty well and focus on what I need to do."

So far has included two TAC Cup games, which preceded the Academy camp. Balic was anxious before round one, with Sandringham facing the Calder Cannons. He started deep in the forward line but struggled to make an impact in the Dragons' defeat.

He improved in round two, with 25 disposals, but the Dragons lost again and it dawned on Balic how different this season would be to last.

He doesn't have the likes of Angus Brayshaw or Brayden Maynard (now at Melbourne and Collingwood respectively) around him. This season, people will go to Dragons games just to watch him.

Centre of attenion: Balic in TAC Cup action for Sandringham. Picture: AFL Media

Balic got a better sense of that when he met with AFL recruiters yesterday. The Academy scheduled interview sessions across two mornings, and each of the 35 players had 10 minutes with recruiters from every club.

Some clubs sent two scouts. Fremantle had six sitting in an arc around the player's chair in the middle. The Dockers asked Balic if he had forgotten to hand in one of his urine samples, a daily requirement on the American tour to measure each player's wellbeing.

"I think they were just seeing if I'd go along with it or not. I said I had done it, because I'm sure I did," he says. "There's no point lying or being someone who you're not because they catch you out pretty quickly."

'Where was your work rate?'

Richmond's scouts were specific with their criticism, highlighting how Balic had let his opponent run off him and kick a goal in the game against Werribee.

"Where was your work rate?" they asked him. "Didn't you run a 15.3 beep test a couple of months ago?" He found it tough to give a reason for his lapse.

"Feedback like that is good though. You're not going to walk in and have them tell you how good you are and that you're a No. 1 draft pick. It would be lovely, but it doesn't really work like that," Balic says.

"I'm a laidback guy. I don't feel pressured or get nervous talking to the recruiters."

Balic is relaxed by nature. He makes friends easily and, although he's very close to his family, he hangs out with his mates so much Nancy has to convince Eddie that their son does love them, but that he simply enjoys seeing what the world has to offer beyond their front door.

People have always gravitated to him. When he was at kindergarten, all the kids would stand around, and when Harley would sit down, they would fight to sit next to him. The recruiters find him personable.

Laidback and personable, Balic rarely feels the pressure. Picture: supplied

"He understands where he needs to get better. Some boys have no idea what they need to improve, and that makes you worried, but Harley's not like that," one says.

It's why Balic already knew he had to get moving more on the ground. After playing as a deep, creative forward last year, he focused on improving his engine over summer.

Hitting the sand

He wanted to be a midfield option in 2015, but knew his best beep test result (level 13.8) wasn't good enough for that. So as soon as Sandringham's season finished last year, Balic developed a fitness plan.

Every second day he'd jog across the road from home to Mordialloc beach, run as far as he could along the sand, turn around and run back home. Balic has never enjoyed running, and would stop when he felt he could go no more.

But over summer he ran until his legs went wobbly, his head throbbed and he felt like he was about to pass out. "Once I thought I could run, the more I ran," he says.

He has put that schedule on hold for now given the workload of the season, but he is keeping busy in other ways. Balic, who finished year 12 last year, has taken this year off and works two days a week for his dad's business, Melbourne Bathrooms.

For the past two months he has also taken on a role with the Footy Star Academy program, which sees a handful of Dragons players coach junior players.

Working keeps Balic's mind off the bigger picture. He doesn't get too stressed about much, but the draft is one thing he tries not to talk about a lot. Sanderson told the boys last week that it was only about six months until draft day, which took Balic by surprise.

His start to the year has been solid rather than outstanding, and he wants to build on that. On Saturday he will line-up again for the Academy at the MCG, this time against the Northern Blues (featuring 17 Carlton-listed players).

He's excited to kick-start his draft season after a scratchy beginning.

"A few people have said to me, 'There's a lot more to you than what you've shown'. I want to play good footy and give clubs a reason to pick me," he says.

"If I play good footy, I see myself being in the top 15-20 prospects. And if I do everything right and play well, then maybe I could get into the top 10.

"But you see players every year slide from 10 to 20 to 30 and the next thing you know, they're almost out of the draft. So I need to start performing."

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