THE LAST time Mitch Lewis played a full season of football, was the last time Box Hill won a flag. A lot has changed for the key forward since that win over the Casey Demons at Marvel Stadium in 2018.
Lewis has gone from the ironic pick, who arrived at Waverley Park weeks after iconic figures Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis were traded to West Coast and Melbourne respectively, to the focal point of Hawthorn's forward line after serving a long apprenticeship in the VFL.
The 25-year-old backed up a breakout 2022, where he kicked 37 goals from 15 appearances, with an equally impressive 2023, finishing with 36 goals from 15 games after missing the first six rounds due to an ACL sprain.
Only seven players averaged more goals per game than Lewis last year, while he ranked equal sixth the year earlier. If he can stay on the park, greater team and personal success is achievable.
That is why Lewis is determined to improve his durability in 2024. He didn't finish last season after suffering a Lisfranc injury against the Western Bulldogs in round 23. He played out that game instead of being subbed out, after Chad Wingard ruptured his Achilles in Launceston.
It took the Calder Cannons product until the week before Christmas to return to full fitness – much longer than first thought – but aside from a rolled ankle that cost him one session in January, Lewis has banked the post-Christmas block to date and is building towards doing what he has only done once before: play round one and play a full season.
"I haven't played a full season since my second year of VFL when I played just about every game and ended up winning a flag at Box Hill. My goal for however long it's been is to get a full season in. I'm doing all the right things with my body to make that this year, which is all I can do, really," Lewis told AFL.com.au on Hawthorn's pre-season camp in Torquay.
"If anything, I've tried to think less about injuries and my body. I've got caught up in the last couple of years about trying to do so much that I've probably overdone it at times. I've taken a little bit of a back step and tried to relax. A quote for me at the moment is, 'Be where my feet are, don't think about the past or the future too much, do what I can in the moment'."
Lewis is a cog in a new-look attack under new forwards coach Adrian Hickmott, who has stepped up from contest coach over the summer to replace Chris Newman, after the former Richmond captain was lured back to Punt Road to join Adem Yze's coaching panel.
Hawthorn renovated this area of the ground during October's trade period. They beat Adelaide to land Mabior Chol from Gold Coast, amid a busy deadline day when the Hawks also secured three-time premiership forward Jack Gunston and Collingwood poster boy Jack Ginnivan. Then they selected 170cm goal sneak Nick Watson at pick No.5 in the 2023 AFL Draft.
Chol moved to a third club in the space of two years after struggling for senior opportunities at the Suns in 2023. But if the former Richmond spearhead can recapture the 2022 form that resulted in 44 goals from 22 appearances, Lewis will benefit from the support.
"I'm really excited with 'Cholly'," Lewis said. "He is a very relaxed guy and has that demeanour and swagger about him that I really like. He was modified loads pre-Christmas as well and has transitioned into the group post-Christmas. He has been really impressive with the game play. It can look like he is not trying hard, but then you look at his GPS numbers and his output is very, very good. He works very hard, especially when the footy is out. It will he nice sharing the load as a key forward.
"We tried a lot of different things last year and probably didn't find the absolute best avenue to goal. Our midfield started to really hit their stride last year and started to dominate, but we couldn't capitalise on that. We were getting inside 50s but didn't kick enough goals. We have brought in a couple of guys to work in the forward line. I think it's going to be exciting with Ginnivan and Watson. Plus Gunston, of course."
Lewis started his off-season with a former teammate who became a current teammate by the end of the golf trip in South Carolina. Gunston made the annual pilgrimage for past and current Hawks, arriving in the United States as a Brisbane player before returning to Australia a Hawk again after 12 months in Queensland. James Sicily and Luke Breust were also on the trip, along with a group of Brisbane players, plus former Hawthorn stars Isaac Smith and Jaeger O'Meara.
The next stop was to watch former teammate Jackson Ross punt for the University of Tennessee in front of 101,000 people at Neyland Stadium, alongside Changkuoth Jiath, Will Day, Dylan Moore and Jack Scrimshaw. Lewis' girlfriend Shelbea met him in New York City to finish the trip, before returning to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
Hawthorn has undergone widespread leadership change across the past few years. Sicily became captain at the start of last season after Ben McEvoy and Ben Stratton held the role for two years each. Mitchell is preparing for his third season as senior coach, Andy Gowers for his second season as president and Ash Klein for his first as CEO. Lewis is a leader and a potential future captain, developing his leadership naturally, just like his game.
"Two years ago, I tried to force it and make it part of my DNA. In the last six to 12 months I've started to be myself and ironically the leadership stuff has just come out. I'm beginning to understand more of the needs of AFL footy and the way it all works, so I'm enjoying teaching some of the younger guys," he said.
"‘Sis' (Sicily) provided a good lesson early last year as captain when after a couple of rounds he was focusing too much on trying to lead and be captain of the Hawthorn Football Club. As soon as he took a backwards step and focused on getting his role done, he played well and everyone praised him for being a great leader. A lot of us as young people, (if we) can get our job done first and then that other stuff will take care of itself."
When Lewis isn't at Waverley Park, he is usually on the golf course. Hidden Valley Resort Golf Course was literally in his backyard growing up. And if he isn't there, Deakin University is another part of his week, where he is studying a teaching degree.
The classroom might be the path when he retires, although coaching and football operations both appeal. Hawthorn's football department has been stacked with former teachers this century. Current GM Rob McCartney was a primary school principal before Alastair Clarkson lured him to Waverley Park, first as a development coach before ascending up the football department hierarchy.
But that can wait.
Lewis is first focused on this Thursday's intraclub and the two practice matches against the Western Bulldogs – February 23 at Whitten Oval and March 2 at University of Tasmania Stadium – and is more determined than ever to stay on the park in 2024.