IT WAS hard for Zach Merrett to know how to feel when he was upgraded to Essendon's leadership group in January. It was something he had aimed for, and something he's always wanted.
He grew up aspiring to be an AFL club captain, and the elevation was an important step towards that.
It was also bittersweet for the 20-year-old. A month earlier, having strived to increase his responsibilities at the Bombers and make the leadership group for 2016, he had missed out. Not by much, but he was still disappointed not to be included.
But when five of the leadership group members (among 12 Bombers) were handed 12-month bans by WADA, spots opened up and Merrett was given his chance in a rejigged line-up. In the whirlwind that was Essendon's Tullamarine headquarters at the start of this year, Merrett had suddenly been thrust into a more prominent role.
"It was a bit of a weird feeling. To miss out the first time was a little bit disappointing, but to get in the second time was weird knowing that a few guys had been suspended and weren't able to take their place in that leadership group," Merrett told AFL.com.au this week.
"But on the other hand it was exciting and a new experience I wouldn't have if they didn't get suspended. I'm just trying to take it all in and try to grow that part of my game, and to look out more for other people."
There was a running joke at Essendon early in Merrett's career that he was always in a rush: to get stronger, to get better, to play more in the midfield, to be a great player.
That he was only heading into his third AFL season and was aspiring to be added to the Bombers' leadership group adds weight to the view the classy midfielder sets his sights big, and fast.
The Bombers recognised it, too. Last year they included Merrett in a couple of leadership meetings so he could see how they unfolded, and star midfielder Dyson Heppell, Merrett's direct mentor, worked closely with him to accelerate his learning.
"I worked a lot with 'Hepp' in the first couple of years and he was in the leadership group in his third year at the club. It was a goal of mine to do that as well and he worked pretty closely with me to get there," he said.
"I don't think I was too far away, but obviously the boys who were selected were deserved. Since I've been in I've found it to be what I expected. On the field there's probably a lot more players looking towards you when the game's on the line or if they're in need of some advice."
That part should sit comfortably with Merrett, who has started the season in terrific form. He has averaged 30 disposals a game in the opening three rounds and is spending far more time in a midfield role in the absence of key players.
Several of those missed large chunks of last season with injury too, which enabled Merrett to taste more midfield time in his second year at the club, when he finished fourth in its best and fairest.
Zach Merrett has been outstanding so far in 2016. Picture: AFL Media
"I was pretty happy. I think I'd come along a lot more than I'd anticipated and had had more midfield time than I thought I'd get with a few injuries to Jobe Watson, David Myers and Heath Hocking and guys like them," he said.
"I got some more opportunity I probably wouldn't have got otherwise, so I just tried to take it with both hands and I think I did in the end."
Essendon is in for one of its most challenging seasons, but the progress of players such as Merrett offers seeds of hope for the club's future. Despite his youth the smart left-footer, who has also averaged six tackles a game this year, has already developed into one of the Bombers' best and most important players.
Merrett hopes that by the end of this season he can look back at how much he has developed because of the increased opportunities he has been handed because of the absence of the banned players. He is doing everything to ensure the Bombers don't regret a wasted year.
"I hate losing and you still get really disappointed and sad when you don't win, but I think 'Woosha' (coach John Worsfold) has been great in making it clear where we're going and we've set a clear vision as a club and playing group about where we want to get to," he said.
"We're really sticking to that."
Giving back to the country
Saturday will be the first 'Country Game' between Essendon and Geelong, as the clubs hope to build football's next marquee game.
A number of initiatives have been set up for the pre-match on Saturday, including live performances on stage, and market and food stalls outside the MCG.
Merrett, who grew up in Cobden, more than 210km west of Melbourne, said he was pleased to be a part of the concept, which has been developed by coaching great Kevin Sheedy.
"It's obviously a great initiative by 'Sheeds' to give back to the country people. Coming from the country, it's probably a game I never thought I'd be playing in," Merrett said.
"It's exciting to give something back and Geelong and Essendon are two good clubs to have involved."
Kevin Sheedy with Tom Hawkins and Joe Daniher, both country products. Picture: AFL Media