LAURA Stone was one of the top Victorian draft prospects before she was signed to Hawthorn as an academy selection, but the midfielder thrives on pressure.
Stone, who turns 18 on Wednesday, casually revealed she had been an Australian Open ball kid in an interview with afl.com.au at the AFLW Combine, before she was signed by the Hawks.
When pressed further, not only had she featured at a grand slam, but she was selected for the men's final in 2021 between Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev.
Stone never played tennis herself, but her ball and movement skills were such she was elevated to the top level.
"I decided to be a ball kid and try out in 2020. I thought I'd just give it a go and see what it was like. I've seen some of my friends and people I know get involved, and seen them when I've gone to matches, and it seemed like such a cool experience," Stone said.
"I wanted to get on board and try it out. It was such a good experience, you meet all these new people, all these cool players as well, and you get a real taste of professionalism in this high professional environment.
"The biggest match I was a part of was the 2021 men's final, that was Djokovic and Medvedev, that was a crazy experience. It was during COVID and everything, it was a bit different with the crowds, more restrictions. But it was such a cool honour and privilege to be part of it, it was unbelievable."
Stone was drawn to football from a young age, and has played all the way through the junior ranks to Coates Talent League side Eastern Ranges and Vic Metro.
"I started playing in primary school, in grade two with the boys at lunchtime, that was my main starting area, they taught me all the fundamentals. Then in about grade six, I joined a local footy team, SBL (South Belgrave-Lysterfield) Wolves," Stone said.
"They had their first girls team, so I joined that. A few of my friends wanted to join, so it really kicked off from there.
"I just found [footy] such a fun thing to do at lunch time rather than just sitting around. I was a pretty active kid and loved sport, I loved every sport, I played basketball a bit as well. I just wanted to give it a go, I wasn't too good, but they taught me everything and that's where it started."
A self-described "passionate" Collingwood fan, she will have to change allegiance pretty quickly to the brown and gold, and looks up to Ruby Schleicher's strength and leadership both on and off the field.
"I'm quite a versatile player, speed at the contest. I really like to get into the contest and impact as much as I can. My tackle pressure, just putting pressure on the contest," she said.
"I switch between half-back and midfield. I can really apply my skills to both those positions, I don't really have a preference, just wherever I can play my role."
Unmistakable in her bright pink boots this year – "I don't want to be cocky, but I just like the bright look" – and her customary headband, which she's worn variations of since under-12s, Stone's attack on the footy has come at a cost at times this year.
"I've had four at the start of the year, and it hasn't been too good with a few head knocks and stuff, so I've been trying to manage it as best I can," Stone said.
"Throughout the year – after the first few games, I started to get them, it was a bit weird, it was the first time I'd experienced them, but I just really like to attack the contest, so that's probably why.
"I've tried to, going in being really mindful of my head and not bursting through packs, and just really side-on with my ground balls."