JACOB Koschitzke was drafted as a full-back, made his name as a mobile key forward, but is set to play as a ruckman in the Northern Territory tonight. Not that it bothers him. He thought his AFL dream was over by the end of the hub, even going as far as saying goodbye to many teammates before they departed the Barossa Valley in 2020.
Life has changed since then. The Albury boy with the famous surname secured one more year a month after hub life ended, made his debut in round one last year and didn't look back, kicking 27 goals from 20 games to breathe life into his AFL career.
Koschitzke now has 26 games on the board and looks like a key part of the future under new coach Sam Mitchell, alongside young spearhead Mitch Lewis. This weekend the 21-year-old faces a massive challenge against Gold Coast co-captain Jarrod Witts at TIO Stadium.
"If you asked me that in 2018 when I was drafted as a key defender, I would have laughed in your face and said, 'No chance, I'm a full-back'. Then that didn’t really go to plan. I was going OK but I wasn’t really bringing my strengths to the table. That was the reason for the move up forward," Koschitzke told AFL.com.au at Waverley Park this week.
"In the hub I was probably pretty lucky to get another year extension on the contract, to be honest. I think last year took everyone by surprise. This weekend, I'm open to anything. I'm living my dream playing AFL. If you asked me at the back end of my first deal, I would have just taken one game."
Everyone had a different experience in the hub. Some loved being on the road, away from home for months like a school camp. Others felt suffocated and hated being away from family and friends. Being stuck in Noosa, like St Kilda, was much better than being confined to the Barossa Valley in the middle of winter, like Hawthorn. Koschitzke struggled, questioning his love of the game.
"I'm a very insular person. Not introverted, as such, but I'm not the rowdy and rambunctious type. I like to have my own space and I found it difficult in the hub because I would be rooming next to everyone and seeing them every day at dinner, lunch, on your days off. I felt a little overwhelmed by it all," he said.
"I was playing scrimmages at full-back in 12 v 12 games and it was just a paddock. Was this what being drafted was all about? I was second guessing myself and thinking I could be doing my uni degree right now and knocking it off. I got to the back end of that year and was unsure if football was my number one passion."
But amid the lack of proper games and the unknown regarding his future, there was a day at Alberton Oval that changed the trajectory of his career. Koschitzke started in defence against Port Adelaide – Adelaide players were mixed through both teams – and moved forward. He showed his strengths were better suited in attack, capturing the attention of Alastair Clarkson.
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"I played forward in the last scrimmage games where we had close to 18 v 18. I played the first half as a defender and they threw the magnets around for last game of the year. I played forward, had some good contests, took some marks, had a couple of shots on goal and I looked almost revitalised. My athleticism was showcased a bit more. I was crashing packs and I looked like I had a bit more life to me after eight weeks in the Barossa," he recalled.
"It was the exit meeting where Clarko said I didn't get a chance to showcase myself in the hub. We'd like to try you up forward for a little bit next year and if it works it works. It ended up going OK."
Under the guidance of then-assistant coach Craig McRae, Koschitzke blossomed over the course of last winter. McRae, the three-time Brisbane premiership midfielder who is now the senior coach of Collingwood, taught him step-by-step how to be an instinctive forward, building his confidence with each passing training session and game.
"I went from virtually a nobody who wasn't getting a game and was just filling a spot for the sake of it to feeling like I belonged at the level and was contributing," he said.
"It took me a while to find my feet and it was probably the middle of 2021 when I actually had some confidence. Mitchy Lewis and I were young but we had to be the men as the key forwards.
"'Fly' was very authentic and genuine, whether you were the last bloke on the list or the first, he treated you exactly the same. I used to get really wound up over little things. He just had that really calming aura about him. I went in leaps and bounds alongside him. I can't speak more highly about him."
Koschitzke took a little bit to get going this year, but it wasn't down to falling out of favour following wholesale changes to the coaching department. He underwent shoulder surgery at the end of last season and has taken until now to regain his strength. It also took him the best part of two months to fully recover from COVID-19.
"It knocked me around for a couple of months. I lost my power. My game compared to other guys my size is my intensity at the contest, my attack on a pack or ground level. I was lacking that post-COVID. It took me about eight weeks. It wasn't formally long COVID, but it was acknowledged throughout the club that I was taking longer," he said.
"I fell out of the side and I was forced to earn my spot back at Box Hill. I got my spot back by opportunity and played in the ruck, but I feel in the last month I've got my form back to where it was at in the back end of last year where I was kicking goals and more consistent."
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One thing that has changed since last year is the number on the back of his jumper. Koschitzke moved from No.34 to No.23 after Tim O'Brien was traded to the Western Bulldogs, going through an application process that highlights why there is a romance attached to numbers at clubs. Don Scott, Dermott Brereton and Lance Franklin have all worn the iconic number he now owns, as did his cousin Justin Koschitzke during his decorated career at St Kilda.
"It was almost like a job interview, like an application process. I touched on how I like the historical aspect of the number with Dermie, Bud, Don Scott and my cousin played in 23 as well at St Kilda. (The number) 23 has the family and positional history at the club. I applied for it, said my reasons and got given it," he said.
"Dermott presented the jumper and told me about the significance. Don Scott contacts me quite often. He was a ruckman and he is very supportive, sends me texts and rang me up after the game against Geelong to talk about my ruckwork. He wanted to know what I was benching, how many chin ups I can do, things like that. We are the family club and we hold a lot of value in connecting back to our history."
Now there is a new No.23 making his mark in the brown and gold.