IT WASN'T long after Isaac Heeney hurt his knee in round six that the battle for the 2015 NAB AFL Rising Star award narrowed to a race between two future champions.
And on Wednesday, either Patrick Cripps or Jesse Hogan is tipped to become the 23rd Ron Evans medallist.
In the (navy) blue corner, Carlton's raging bull Cripps has emerged as the successor to his hero Chris Judd as the Blues' midfield leader for the next decade.
And in the red (and blue) corner, key forward Hogan has carried the weight of long-suffering Melbourne supporters' expectations and somehow exceeded the hype.
After their 2014 campaigns were wrecked by serious injuries, the pair of 20-year-old West Australians have bounced back in tremendous fashion and both would be deserving winners of this year's prestigious award.
WHY CRIPPS SHOULD WIN
Cripps is the short-priced favourite and has been for most of the season.
The 190cm onballer carries the flame for the rebuilding Blues and should be right in contention for the John Nicholls Medal after overcoming a broken leg and playing 20 games this year.
Dubbed 'The Extractor' for his ability to win possession from tight spots, Cripps has developed his running power and just keeps finding the footy – no matter how much the Blues have battled.
His numbers are extraordinary.
After 20 career games, Cripps averaged more disposals, contested possessions, marks, tackles and clearances than dual Brownlow medallist Judd, who burst onto the scene as one of the most accomplished first-year players in recent memory for West Coast.
And like a young Judd at the Eagles, his impact has been felt in his side's four wins.
He earned his nomination in round four against St Kilda on Anzac Day in Wellington, when Mick Malthouse's under-fire team rallied to their first victory.
Cripps was nothing short of inspirational, as he gathered 33 touches – a huge 23 contested – laid 11 crunching tackles, won eight clearances and kicked his first goal in Malthouse's only victory before he was sacked.
It was a mouthwatering taste of what was to come, and the longer this season went, the more consistent Cripps became.
He averaged almost 24 touches a game, with his career-best 35 possessions coming in a loss to Collingwood in round 19.
But it's also the way the future leader earned his possessions that won him so many admirers.
Cripps averaged nearly 14 contested possessions per game (eighth in the AFL) - more than Joel Selwood, Trent Cotchin, Luke Parker and David Mundy.
He ranked 12th for clearances and tied seventh for extracting the ball from centre bounces, equal with West Coast stars Matt Priddis and Luke Shuey – who have Nic Naitanui palming the ball into their laps.
Put simply, Cripps' willingness to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in is something special for a footballer his age.
Patrick Cripps celebrates a goal against Adelaide. Picture: AFL Media
WHY HOGAN SHOULD WIN
Not since Nick Riewoldt edged out Judd in 2002 has a key forward clinched the Rising Star.
But not many goalkickers have exploded onto the AFL scene quite like Jesse Hogan.
As the Dees struggled through 2014, frustrated fans kept hearing the hype about the competitive animal stuck on the sidelines with a back injury.
Big things were expected when Hogan finally got onto the park – and he delivered.
In his debut match, the big forward slotted two goals and took four contested marks as the Demons ended a 10-year round one drought with victory over Gold Coast.
Then on Sunday against Greater Western Sydney in round 23, an injury cloud and pre-game fitness test couldn't stop him booting three goals and hauling down another four contested grabs as Melbourne put to rest a 22-game hoodoo at Etihad Stadium.
It's been that sort of season for Hogan.
When he's fired, Melbourne has looked an immeasurably better outfit.
And often he's performed despite the attention of the competition's elite defenders.
In round four, Hogan outpointed Richmond's All Australian backman Alex Rance as the Dees notched a morale-boosting win in the wet at the MCG.
Five rounds later he was finally nominated for the Rising Star for kicking two goals in a loss to Port Adelaide, then in just his 10th game Hogan bagged his first five-goal haul in a loss to St Kilda.
The Claremont product was only held goalless once as he booted 44 majors – six better than Wayne Carey in his first full season and 23 more than Riewoldt in '02.
It was an astounding effort given Melbourne totalled the third least inside 50s for the season. It forced Hogan to make the most of his opportunities.
The 195cm big man was rarely beaten in the air – taking 47 contested marks (third in the AFL) – and his 62 per cent goal accuracy was better than any of the top-10 finishers in the Coleman Medal race.
Few can deny we are witnessing an all-time great emerge.
Jesse Hogan soars high for a mark against the Tigers. Picture: AFL Media
THE OTHER CONTENDERS
When it comes to betting markets, there's Cripps as favourite, closely followed by Hogan and then daylight to third.
But this year's crop of Rising Star nominees promises to be one of the best ever.
West Coast midfielder Dom Sheed's second season only got better as the Eagles hit their stride, with the skillful left-footer carving a niche for himself in Adam Simpson's well-drilled outfit.
Hogan's take-no-prisoners teammate Angus Brayshaw is already being touted as Melbourne's next captain, while Sydney Swans academy product Heeney only managed 12 games but could yet be the best player of the 2015 nominees.
Gold Coast's Touk Miller and rookie Adam Saad have been shining lights for the Suns in a bleak season. Ditto for Brisbane Lions' strong-marking defender Harris Andrews.
Speedy wingman Billy Hartung forced his way into Hawthorn's formidable best 22, tough nut Jordan De Goey excited Collingwood fans with his tenacity and Kamdyn McIntosh played every game after setting Richmond's season-opening win alight.
GWS has unearthed a star-in-the-making in Cam McCarthy up forward and Adelaide couldn't have been happier with mature defender Jake Lever.
WHO WILL WIN?
When Lewy Taylor pipped Marcus Bontempelli by a solitary vote last year, it was hailed as the most thrilling count in Rising Star history.
This year's announcement could be just as close.
Cripps is a prototype midfielder with the resilience and character to lead Carlton's rise off the bottom of the ladder. He would be more than worthy if he becomes the Blues' first Rising Star winner.
But Hogan held down the toughest position on the ground in one of the lowest-scoring teams in the competition and beat some of the League's best backmen in his debut season.
He deserves to be crowned this year's NAB AFL Rising Star.