KOBY Stevens was in career-best form last season when he got the shock of his life.
The rugged midfielder was recovering from a bruised lung that saw him taken to hospital during the round 15 clash with Gold Coast, when he noticed pain in his foot.
That discomfort turned out to be a stress facture, which ended his year and ruined his off-season.
"I didn't think it was that significant at the start, but it ended up being a 20 to 30-week injury, which is pretty serious," Stevens told AFL.com.au.
"It was really frustrating considering the year I was having because it came right out of the blue.
"And I was planning to go on a surfing trip at the end of the season, but the foot operation changed all that.
"But I got back into full training after Christmas and the foot is feeling really good and I'm pretty much fully fit."
Before injury beset the 24-year-old, he'd averaged 23 disposals a game over the previous five weeks to become an integral part of the Bulldogs' imposing midfield.
The big-bodied Bairnsdale product was getting plenty of the footy, winning clearances and helping fill the big hole left by an ACL injury to star playmaker Tom Liberatore.
But it's not going to be easy reclaiming his spot, with Liberatore back to full fitness and a host of impressive youngsters eager for more senior opportunities.
And it's that competition for spots that Stevens hopes will drive him and the Dogs to greater heights in 2016.
"It's going to be pretty interesting come the start of the year, which is good because we've hardly got anyone in the rehab group and the young blokes are hungry for a spot in the side, so it's going to be pretty competitive come round one," Stevens said.
"It's motivated me to push my game to another level."
A country boy at heart, Stevens is enjoying the growing presence of fellow Gippsland Power graduates at Whitten Oval, with skipper Bob Murphy, Clay Smith, Lukas Webb and draftee Josh Dunkley all hailing from the TAC Cup club.
Dunkley and Webb are two pups nipping at his heels for midfield time, but Stevens still takes great pride in guiding the emerging duo.
"I've had a fair bit to do with Josh because I was his mentor when he first arrived at the club," he said.
"He's been great since he's arrived. He's such a sponge and he's improving every day.
"I've known him and Lukas for a while."
Sadly, one man not pushing for a round one spot against Fremantle is Stevens' long-time friend Clay Smith, with the tough-as-teak midfielder recuperating from a third knee reconstruction in as many years.
"Clay is in pretty good spirits considering he's been through a rough trot," Stevens said.
"He's working his way through his rehab and we're just looking to get him back playing footy, because missing three years of footy is pretty hard on a young fella.
"I found it pretty hard watching the boys play last year, but the way he's handled it, it's been inspirational."