IT HAD all been going so swimmingly for Connor Budarick.
A rookie pick pre-listed through Gold Coast's Academy in 2019, the small lockdown defender had surprisingly burst onto the scene at Metricon Stadium in his first year at the club. He'd played 15 games, won an elevation to the senior list, claimed a NAB AFL Rising Star nomination and had quickly emerged as an important member of Stuart Dew's immediate and future plans.
However, ready to go again and build on the solid platform he had been compiling in year two, an innocuous change of direction late in the club's comprehensive victory over North Melbourne early in the 2021 season resulted in a ruptured ACL in his right knee and the prospect of 12 months on the sidelines.
For a player that had worked so hard to get to where he was, the challenge ahead was understandably daunting. Coming into this 2022 season, Budarick would have to re-assert himself into a Suns squad that had another year of growth and development behind it and re-establish himself as an important figure in its backline once more.
"Initially, I was pretty bummed. You don't wish it upon anyone to do their knee. But I just took it as an opportunity to make myself better and to learn more about myself and my body," Budarick told AFL.com.au during the club's recent trip to Darwin.
"I think the bittersweet part of it was that I had a couple of other guys that were in the same boat as me. It might have been a different story if I was by myself, but the fact I had a few other boys there with me meant I was able to develop a lot better in the relationships I have off the field. I just took it as an opportunity to challenge myself and get myself better."
Get better, he certainly did. At the conclusion of his long and gruelling recovery process, Budarick was once again forced to win his way back into the Gold Coast team through the VFL.
Marking his comeback with 22 disposals and 10 grabs against the Northern Bullants back in March was quite the start. Another impressive display against Sandringham barely a fortnight later, this one yielding 28 touches across half-back, saw him banging down the door for senior selection.
The performance against the Zebras was ultimately rewarded by Dew. The diminutive and no-fuss 21-year-old was back playing in a Suns jumper again during a QClash bout against the Lions in April. Just as he had only a couple of years earlier, he was cementing his place in the team as well. Budarick has since played the last seven consecutive games at AFL level, ensuring he is once again a mainstay in the club's plans.
The culmination of his hard work to get back into the side came during the team's most recent victory against North Melbourne in Darwin, as Budarick inspired the Suns to a fourth win in five games and ensured they went into the bye with a promising 6-6 record. The youngster had a career-best game, winning 25 disposals to complement 15 intercepts and 422m gained.
"It wasn't like once I was able to play footy again I was straight back in. I had to do my work in the reserves side and play a few games in there. I just slowly worked my way back into it. I just had to go out and do the basics. I didn't feel like I had to go to the top straight away and try to stand out," Budarick said.
"Obviously, missing out on a fair chunk of footy, you come back and you're going to be rusty. It took me a few weeks to get going, but now it's just all about getting consistency and trying to play my role as best as I can for the team.
"For me, it was just about knuckling down on the fundamentals and getting some consistency and match fitness again. It was certainly a really good feeling, coming back after missing out on the majority of last season. It's just good to be back doing what I love.
"Obviously, to have the belief from the coaching group and the selection panel to bring me back in, it makes me really proud of myself and how far I've come. I've just got to stay in now."
Budarick's highlights package against the Kangaroos, a prolific performance where his clean ball-handling and ability to break the lines were evident, has led some at the Suns to suggest that perhaps a midfield move might await him sometime in the future. Not that any such switch is at the forefront of his mind just yet.
"I played midfield my whole junior career. But probably when I was 16 or 17, I got my first taste of playing in the backline through the AFL Academy with Luke Power. He started that transition for me," Budarick said.
"I knew that if I was going to be playing in an AFL team, I wouldn't be playing in the midfield. That allowed me to start developing a different side of my game earlier on. I feel like I've made it my position now and I'm just happy to be in the side."
Having marked his return from injury with a three-year contract extension signed earlier this season, Budarick has guaranteed his future at Metricon Stadium until at least the end of 2025. But, before he sets himself any individual goals for the years ahead, he's hoping to be part of the first Gold Coast team to ever play finals football.
"It's a big apple there for us, really," Budarick said.
"What's front of mind for us is the weekend ahead and trying to go out and compete as best as we can to try and win. Finals is obviously the end-goal for us, but I think in the short-term the weekend upcoming is our main focus.
"There's definitely a possibility and an opportunity for us to play finals footy this year, so that's up to us whether we're going to be hungry enough to go and grab it."