PATRICK Lipinski's season took a twist before it had even really started. And now it's starting to pay off.
After playing 17 games last year, the Western Bulldogs youngster set himself for a breakout 2019 campaign.
"My aim was to play 22 games. I had a really good pre-season and was looking forward to hopefully cracking in for round one," Lipinski told AFL.com.au this week.
Lipinski's hard work is finally starting to pay off. Picture: AFL Photos
Then the JLT Community Series pre-season competition started. Lipinski, by his own admission, didn't play well against Gold Coast on the Dogs' trip to Mackay, and in the following days had a chat with coach Luke Beveridge.
"I was playing on the wing and he thought I should go back to the VFL, get more involved and get my confidence up playing in the midfield," he said.
The new role was as an inside ball-getter, someone who could use his size and athleticism more around the stoppages rather than outside of them.
"It was a little bit difficult because I'm more of an outside, running player, so I had to improve on that contested part of my game, which I've been working on since I got to the club the past few years," he said.
"I just tried to use my strengths with my run and really outwork my opponents in the VFL."
Lipinski came up against champion Hawk Jarryd Roughead in a VFL clash. PIcture: AFL Photoi
The 20-year-old just didn't think he'd be down there so long. Lipinski didn't get a recall to the Dogs' senior side until round 10 of the season, having been made to earn his place.
"It was a bit disappointing and frustrating, but it was also a good opportunity to also improve on things that you wouldn't be able to improve on at AFL level because you don't have all the pressure to perform so consistently when you're in a new role," he said.
Every week Lipinski would work through edits of his game, pouring over vision of his games and where he could improve.
He worked closely with Jordan Russell, his development coach and also the Footscray VFL midfield coach, and Dogs' midfield assistant and Geelong great Joel Corey, every week doing extra stoppage work and contested drills after main sessions finished.
"I felt ready the whole time. I was playing decent footy in the VFL and a few times I was a bit disappointed I wasn't put in [to the AFL team], but in the long run it helped me really improve," he said.
"I looked at it in a positive way. I didn't want to dwell on it because then I wouldn't play well in the VFL and then I'd be another week behind.
"I remained optimistic and positive to keep playing well and knew I'd eventually get a chance."
He hasn't let it slip. Lipinski came back into the team against North Melbourne, and has averaged nearly 24 disposals in his six games this season.
His best performance came against Carlton, when he gathered 29 touches and kicked two goals, before he followed it with 32 and a goal against Collingwood and two goals and 17 touches against Port Adelaide.
Lipinski's added some more grunt to his game, applying his taller frame, penetrating run and strong instincts to a new spot.
"I'm happy I can see I've had clear improvement from last year, which I thought I had, but as I was playing in the VFL it's hard to know whether you've gone backwards," he said.
"But it did feel like I'd improved a lot over the pre-season so seeing the results come out now have been pretty good. It's definitely been the best patch of my career at AFL level."
His inclusion has come as the Bulldogs have enjoyed their strongest stretch of form this year, winning three of their past four games. If they beat Melbourne on Sunday, a finals spot remains in the frame.
The club, and playing list, has changed dramatically since its 2016 premiership triumph – when Lipinski, a die-hard Dogs fan growing up, was in the stands to see his side beat Sydney in the Grand Final two months before he was drafted there.
He is part of an underbelly of young Dogs starting to blossom together, and two of whom – Aaron Naughton and Tim English – are housemates of Lipinski's. He said it has been enjoyable to see Naughton's star rise so quickly, admitting Naughton hadn't minded the attention, either.
"He's always been pretty confident, even when he first got drafted you could tell he was confident in his own ability, which is also a very good thing because he backs himself," he said.
"He's been, kind of, humble, I guess. Kind of," he said, laughing. "He's often pretty happy with his work as he should be when he's been dominating games. It will be good to watch him over the next few years."