ARIE Schoenmaker knew the questions were coming when he arrived at the MCG. List managers, recruiters, coaches and journalists had all been booked in to ask him the same thing. He was prepared to face the music at the Draft Combine, just like he was when it happened earlier this year.
The 194cm intercept defender missed most of the first half of the Coates Talent League season and the first three games of the national championships after being hit with a 10-week suspension by the Tasmania Devils for an incident on a pre-season training camp.
DRAFT HUB Click here for the latest draft news
Schoenmaker's draft chances were suddenly clouded after the state program came down hard on him for buying and consuming alcohol. A handful of his teammates were suspended, most only for a few weeks, but the 18-year-old copped a big whack. It has ended up being a blessing in disguise, even if it felt severe at the time.
Banished from the Tasmania Devils program, Schoenmaker spent the first two months of last season playing senior football for Launceston in the Tasmanian State League, copping attention against Clarence, Glenorchy, North Hobart and Lauderdale.
But when the suspension was lifted, Schoenmaker injected life into his season – and his draft chances – by amassing 36 disposals, 19 rebound 50s and nine intercepts against Greater Western Victoria Rebels. He was back in business.
Two more games in the Coates Talent League was all it required for Allies coach Mark McVeigh to tap him on the shoulder and pick him against Vic Metro in July. Schoenmaker didn't waste his shot. The kid with the most devastating kick in this year's draft class collected 20 disposals, 10 marks and booted two stunning long-range goals that had recruiters turning to each other and then scribbling notes down. He was back in first-round calculations.
Schoenmaker played the final game of the championships to play a role in the Allies' first title, and then stacked up enough performances in the second half of 2023 to stamp himself as a top-30 talent, a prospect that could result in a club making a move on the first night of next month's AFL Draft.
But despite his exploits on-field this year, and strong endorsements from those involved in the Devils and Allies programs, Schoenmaker landed in Melbourne prepared for the onslaught of questions coming.
"The incident was definitely an eye-opener for me, but it has honestly set me up now as a person. I learnt so much from that experience," Schoenmaker told AFL.com.au sitting inside the MCG at the Draft Combine.
"I'm not happy that it happened – I wish I had more footy at the start of the season – but as a person and trying to fix your values and trying to become better off-field, I think it happened at the perfect time, to be honest, rather than happening when I got into the system or in the back half of the year.
"I feel like it made me figure out this is what it is going to take for me to get to the next level and that's how bad I wanted it. There is obviously standards and professional drive that you need to have to get to the next level. It made me work out what you have to have if you're going to get there."
Wily, old recruiters like Kinnear Beatson, Derek Hine, Scott Clayton and Stephen Wells have seen it all. They can recite the cautionary tales almost as fast as they can recall speculative picks that became stars through sheer grit and determination. They wanted to know if Schoenmaker had the professional standards to make it as a full-time footballer.
"It has come up in literally every meeting," Schoenmaker said. "Every interview process has been the same. I knew that was coming. For me it is about not focusing on the negatives of it, focusing on the positives that came out of it. I just reiterate exactly that and that it was a blessing in disguise."
Jeromey Webberley, the talent manager and head coach of the Tasmania Devils who played 16 games for Richmond before returning to coach in the Apple Isle, watched Schoenmaker cop his punishment on the chin, go to work on himself away from the program and then reap the rewards for dealing with the ramifications of his own mistake in the right way.
"It's on Arie," Webberley told AFL.com.au. "No one else has done it, except for Arie. He's the one that's gone away, worked on himself and come back into our program. He's been outstanding since his return. He's had a great year, he averaged around 30 disposals per game. He was already a key member to the way we went about things, but it was the way that he carried himself and went about his footy that was really impressive.
"He's said it before, but he learnt his lesson and he knew that he had to work on himself. To Arie's credit, he's gone away and he's done that. No one needs to be patted on the back, other than Arie. He should be really proud of what he's achieved this year and hopefully that sets him up for what's to come with his footy."
Schoenmaker is back in Melbourne for the second weekend in a row after his manager, John Meesen from Kapital Sports, connected with Fox Footy and the network invited him to fly over and compete in the annual Grand Final morning Longest Kick competition across the Yarra River.
In a sign of just how far his stocks had soared across the winter, the Tasmanian started the last Saturday in September testing his booming left foot, which is considered by many recruiters as the most penetrating in the pool, against Daniel Rich, James Sicily, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, Trent Rivers, Isaac Smith, Mason Redman, Adam Saad, Daniel Gorringe and Brendan Fevola.
"It was unreal," he said. "I felt like a bit of a fan walking around there. Fev was there. Daniel Gorringe was there, plus a few other big media people. Speaking with some of those boys it was very good. I've always been a natural kick, always felt like I could kick the ball pretty far. I have always had that as a weapon."
For a long time growing up, cricket was the dream. Like many kids around the country, it was cricket in the summer and footy in the winter. But the better you get, the more the sports overlap at either end. Pre-season starts earlier, the demands become greater. You rob Peter to pay Paul. Schoenmaker made the decision to commit to footy in 2021 for a reason that has been exemplified in the way he carries himself on game day.
"I had to make a decision about two years ago whether cricket or footy was going to be my go to because the pre-seasons started crossing over. I've always loved my cricket, but I just felt that I enjoyed footy more than cricket and it was something I wanted to do, so I chose footy," he said.
"The team environment appealed with footy and there is just always something going on. Instead of standing in the field for 90 overs, you can get involved. Cricket is a bit more of an individual sport within a team. Footy is a full team environment, love being around the boys; it was the obvious choice in the end."
There hasn't been a first-round pick out of Tasmania since Tarryn Thomas and Chayce Jones were selected at No.8 and No.9 in 2018. Kade Kolodjashnij was the last one before the pair back in 2013. But there could be as many as four this year if Schoenmaker is selected on November 20.
Colby McKercher was joint winner of the Morrish Medal and is expected be picked in the top five. Ryley Sanders won the Larke Medal and won't be too far behind him, if not before him. James Leake was also named All-Australian and has risen up draft boards of late to be considered a first-round talent now, with some clubs eying him inside the top 10.
The form of those four on the back of the form of the Allies and the Tasmania Devils in 2023 has coincided with the announcement in May that Tasmania had received the 19th license with an excepted AFL entrance in 2028. It means this crop can now see a tangible future where they can return home and play the game at the highest level. But for now, Schoenmaker is ready to pack up and leave home if his name is read out in November.
"Clubs ask all the time: Are you ready to move away? Being from Tassie as a Tassie kid you are used to the same stuff every day. I think moving away is a great opportunity," he said.
"I'm super excited about moving away and experiencing something different. We've been around the same stuff for 18 years now. I'm going to miss my family and my friends. Hopefully I'm lucky enough to get drafted and experience it."
INDICATIVE DRAFT ORDER Your club's picks as they stand
Hawthorn skipper Sicily and Geelong's five-time All-Australian defender Tom Stewart are the two players Schoenmaker models his game on. Devastating by foot, the Launceston product is best used behind the ball, but as Webberley has discovered across the past 18 months, peg him only as a defender at your own peril. He is no one-trick pony.
"Arie's got an elite weapon; he's just about the best kick I've ever seen, in terms of penetration and variety of kick," Webberley said.
"The great thing with Arie is that his finals were outstanding. I thought he was pivotal in us winning our first final. We moved him into the ruck after half-time in our first final and he essentially turned the game for us against Gippsland. He kicked a goal, he gave us great contest in there, and he's got huge running ability. For a guy that's 194cm, he can run a 6.30 2km time trial.
"I was really pleased with the flexibility and our ability to be able to throw him around towards the back end of the year. If you'd have asked me that 18 months ago, I'd have said, ‘No he's a half-back or a third tall interceptor'. But he's got the ability to be thrown around the ground. He's got that one wood, so any time he gets good ball centre-forward you're generally having a shot on goal."
Schoenmaker has had to mature in the spotlight this year. He owned his mistake at the time and owned it again inside the MCG earlier this month. Now he is ready to write a new chapter come 2024 and beyond.