A LACK of closure.

That's how outgoing Box Hill Hawks coach Sam Mitchell saw the 2021 VFL season, his only one in charge before stepping into some of the biggest shoes in football when he replaces Alistair Clarkson at Hawthorn next season.

Given the Hawks won their last six games by 108, 84, 51, 62, 62 and 63 points in what he considered to be a strong competition, it's no surprise Mitchell would feel that way.

"I thought as the season went along it got more competitive with more teams being thereabouts. We saw some blowouts early in the year, but I thought they calmed down as the season went along," Mitchell said.

Sam Mitchell talks to Box Hill players during round 16 of the VFL in 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

"We were sitting 2-2 and had six on the bounce after that, so we finished the season really strongly and we felt we had the momentum despite the COVID break in the middle.

"It was a disappointing way to finish and it feels like a real lack of closure – a lot of guys were really starting to hum along and be ready for how the season was going to finish.

"Having a chat with the players about their season was really challenging because of that lack of closure."

Box Hill did start the season slowly, losing by 10 goals at home to Casey Demons in round one before a similar sized victory over the Northern Bullants.

The Hawks trailed Sandringham by 39 points at half-time of round three before exploding to win by 30 and lost another home game to Werribee by 37 points, with that inconsistent form contributing to them sneaking under the radar despite a run of big wins.

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It was a recovery led by both ends of the list, with Jai Newcombe’s devastating first half of the season leading to him being promoted by Hawthorn in the mid-season draft, while captain Damian Mascitti led from the front with all his 100-plus VFL games of experience.

Having Fergus Greene (30 goals) and Emerson Jeka (23) dominating up forward didn't hurt either.

It resulted in an amazing success rate of getting people picked up by AFL programs – both on and off the field.

"We had Lachie Bramble going in the (supplementary selection period), then Jai (Newcombe) in the mid-season draft and we've also had three or four staff members move into AFL programs at a couple of different clubs," Mitchell said.

"Jai did a fantastic job and was able to put his best foot forward and make his AFL debut after starting out the year at Box Hill, the same as Lachie Bramble.

Lachie Bramble in action during round 23, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

"Damian Mascitti led the team fantastically well and was regularly in our best players. Fergus Greene's goalkicking, Vincent Adduci's dynamic forward half play and Brayden Kilpatrick, who has been around the VFL program for a while and was able to get into the side and perform at a high level week after week.

"These are all guys who got the best out of themselves throughout the year and that's all we can ask for."

Despite the competition being incomplete, Mitchell said it gave him a great grounding for the Hawthorn job, helped by having three VFL premiership coaches around him (Andy Collins, Chris Newman and Craig McRae), as well as AFL great Clarkson.

"I've always had a warm spot in my heart for Box Hill with my own history, being there is such a great environment and you do learn an enormous amount," Mitchell said.

"As an assistant coach you might receive 10 phone calls a week around footy but as a head coach you receive 100, so there's a whole new range of skills and a lot of things go through you, which was a really great grounding for me to ply my craft.

"I've always had my ideas about the game and how it could be played and ideas about how to get the best out of players that perhaps at times were a little unorthodox, so being able to try those things and say 'yep, that one's okay' or 'this one hasn't worked on that occasion'.

Box Hill players celebrate a win in round five, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

"I'm being really curious and open-minded about how things could be done and having the ability to implement them was fantastic and I really loved it.

"There was a lot of VFL experience around and VFL premiership coaches and I learnt an enormous amount.

"Andy Collins was just fantastic, his appointment was one of the wins and I'm really fortunate he's been able to come to Hawthorn with me … it’s a different role but his ability to influence our young players and our coaches and our people has been really strong, and someone of his experience is a good person to have around."

Mitchell pinpointed the comeback against the Zebras as the peak of Box Hill's season, but also found a couple of other events that weren't as well publicised, while the two defeats and a couple of key injuries fell on the other side of the ledger.

"Sandringham, playing away, six goals down at half-time on a blustery sort of day and coming back to have a really good win (was the highlight)," he said.

"Vincent Adduci, it said he kicked five but he really only kicked four because he stole one of the other players' goals – it was quite comic watching him celebrating Brayden Kilpatrick's goal.

Vincent Adduci celebrates a goal for Box Hill in round 16, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

"We had a couple of brothers play in the same game, Charlie and Hugh Beasley, which was a really good moment – obviously the wins are great but little moments like that are special.

"Both losses were strong learning curves, and from a medical point of view we lost a couple of players with hamstring injuries during the early part of the year with Jordan Cunico and Josh Deluca.

"We had a couple of young guys as well with stress fractures who missed the majority of the year as well, so I always feel for those guys who don’t get to play, particularly after 2020 when nobody got to play."

Mitchell acknowledged that all avenues had been exhausted before the season was called off and praised those working behind the scenes to make his job easier, both at Box Hill and the AFL.

"I was in a fortunate position – we had (general manager) Daniel Napoli and (president) Ed Sill who worked with the league to try to get things going … I think we had a proactive approach trying to make it work as best we could," he said.

"It was in vain but those guys worked hard with the league and Jennie Loughnan and Sam Sheehan at the VFL did a great job of keeping the clubs in the loop. It was a frustrating year not being about to get out there and answer what we were trying to achieve, but I was proud of the efforts we put in and the players really stood up in what was a really hard time.

"We had some of our guys still training with Hawthorn and the VFL boys weren't allowed to train, so it was a difficult period, but our fitness staff Dylan Vizzarri and his team did a fantastic job keeping the players well prepared and when we did come back to play we were able to continue to perform."

8-2 win-loss, 3rd

What went right: The Hawks were on a tear when the competition was shut down, having won six matches in a row by an average of almost 12 goals after earlier coming from 39 points down to beat Sandringham. They had Lachie Bramble (supplementary selection period), Jai Newcombe (mid-season) and coaches Sam Mitchell and Andy Collins promoted by Hawthorn.

What went wrong: The season started in shaky fashion with hefty losses to Casey and Werribee sandwiched by six good quarters against the Zebras and Bullants. Losing prime movers Josh Deluca and Jordan Cunico to hamstring injuries for most of the season were other key setbacks.

Best and fairest prediction: Newcombe would have racked up a huge vote tally before breaking into the Hawthorn team and it is doubtful he will be caught. Captain Damian Mascitti, small forward Vincent Adduci and goalkicker Emerson Jeka would be the best chances of doing so.

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Best young players: Adduci has been mentioned as a possible mature-age draft target, while Brayden Kilpatrick could also come under notice after a fine season. Ex-Bulldog Fergus Greene kicked 30 goals in nine games and could earn a second chance. On the AFL list, Ned Reeves, Jeka, Connor Downie and Tyler Brockman got a taste at the top level while Jack Saunders also showed strong development.

Coach status: Sam Mitchell's replacement will be decided once his new coaching panel at Hawthorn is fully locked away. "We're just looking to finish our AFL appointments with assistant coaches, and once that is finished we will sit down with Box Hill and work out the best plan for 2022," he said. "There's a bit of water to go under the bridge in that space."

Twitter: @BRhodesVFL 

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