THE RAPID rise of draft prospect Zane Zakostelsky has been surreal for the athletic tall, who was overlooked at selection for his Claremont colts team at the start of 2023 and cut from its squad altogether the year prior.
A key defender with rare physical traits, Zakostelsky was late to football, having moved through the basketball talent pathway before following his sporting passion two years ago and making football his No.1 focus.
The 196cm backman has since emerged as a raw but exciting draft prospect out of WA, winning the Mel Whinnen Medal as best afield in the WAFL Colts Grand Final in September and shining at the AFL Draft Combine in October, finishing top 10 in four of the event's five tests.
While his athletic traits have caught the eye of AFL recruiters who love the prospect of untapped talent, it is the hard work Zakostelsky has put in since missing out on selection in the colts squad two years ago that has really paid off.
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"That was a bit of a wake-up call to work on my skills," Zakostelsky told AFL.com.au, with Claremont selectors telling the youngster to work on his fundamentals and his game sense.
"I was new to footy, and in some ways it was just about being more of an athlete than a footy player. I could barely hit a target with my kicking.
"But I did have aspirations to be on an AFL list one day, so it was a wake-up call to work on my skills and I took any little opportunity I got to stay after training, do extra drills, or just little things as simple as working on my ball drop."
The other part of Zakostelsky's feedback – to improve his game sense – was harder to fast-track, but the dedicated youngster set about becoming a student of the game.
"I started watching a lot of footy every weekend and I tried to get a feel for the game, but that also comes with time, and game time out on the field," he said.
"Every chance I got to watch AFL games on TV, or re-watch games, I did, and I'd go down to watch WAFL league games. Any bit of footy I could watch just to get that sense for it.
"I knew I was too short to be a ruck at AFL level, which is where I'd played for North Beach, so I watched a lot of key forwards and key defenders."
Basketball had been Zakostelsky's first sporting passion, admiring NBA superstar LeBron James as he worked his way up the junior ranks with the powerful Perry Lakes club in the WA Basketball League.
The Fremantle fan loved watching football, however, and after making a touring team to Melbourne with basketball and then missing state selection with WA after reaching the last 16, he hit a sliding doors moment.
"I came back from that touring team and my back was a little bit sore, so I thought this is the perfect time to transition into footy, because I always loved footy," the 17-year-old said.
"I would play basketball and then as soon as the game was finished, I would rush to the car and get my boots on to play a quarter or a half of footy.
"My North Beach coaches loved it when I would come down to play, but I also loved it and wanted to get there instead of basketball."
While his first trial with Claremont ahead of the 2022 season was unsuccessful, Zakostelsky made the cut 12 months on and made his debut in round two with 17 disposals and 24 hitouts.
It's been all up from there, with another significant moment coming when WA football talent manager Adam Jones called him to confirm he had a place as a train-on player for the State squad.
"That's when he said they were going to try and develop me at either end of the ground," Zakostelsky said.
"I never thought I'd move into the backline, but since I got there they've developed me as a key defender and I've worked with the backline coaches doing everything I can to get familiar with it.
"Being around those state coaches and so many resources in a high-level environment has really helped me thrive and I've just tried to soak it all in. It's definitely helped a lot."
Zakostelky, who has focused in on Greater Western Sydney star Sam Taylor and Fremantle key defender Alex Pearce as players to model his game on, was rewarded with two games during the Under-18 National Championships, where his intercept marking was a feature.
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Winning a premiership and the best-on-ground medal with the Claremont colts was his proudest moment of the year, but it was a set of eye-catching athletic performances at the AFL Draft Combine that thrust him further into Draft calculations.
Having broken a 40-year long jump record at his high school a few years earlier, Zakostelsky finished first in the standing vertical leap (80cm), fifth in the agility test (8.233) and sixth in both the 20m sprint (2.954) and running vertical jump (94).
Putting his name forward and interviewing with 14 AFL clubs was another goal ticked off in a rapidly evolving year for the teenager who, in all likelihood, will be an AFL player when he turns 18 next month.
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"It's been pretty cool. To think that only last year I was paying local footy and won a flag for North Beach to now be in the position that I am in now," he said. "It's pretty surreal and it's happened in such a short space of time."