THERE has been two constants to Ryley Sanders' draft season: the top midfield talent has had the ball in his hands more often than not and he has had his socks pulled up every time he's been out there.
Both have become synonymous with his game into his brilliant 2023 season which has seen clubs rate him as a top-10 pick and North Melbourne push to get pre-selection access to him.
The origin of the high socks goes back to his dad, Adam, a former coach of Tasmania's under-18 team and member of the state's talent pathway.
DRAFT HUB Click here for the latest draft news
"I've always done it. When dad used to play he used to do it and it was quite common back then so he told me in under-9s 'Wear your socks up' and I did and just kept doing it," Sanders told AFL.com.au's trade and draft show Gettable.
"Not many people do it any more so I get complimented about it because it's a lot different and nobody really does it. It's the same with the black boots. It's a bit of a different thing but I don't think I'll change it."
The socks up, ball-getting, strongly built, blond-haired midfielder has gained comparisons to Port Adelaide's young gun Jason Horne-Francis but he has pieced together an ultra-consistent campaign to rocket up the ranks and develop his own name.
The Tasmanian, who moved to Melbourne Grammar where he boards and plays in the Coates Talent League with the Sandringham Dragons, dominated the opening of the season by averaging 32 disposals and a goal for the Dragons in the opening three rounds. He then took things up a notch with his under-18 championships for the Allies, where he averaged 35 disposals, five clearances and a goal across the four games as the Allies claimed their first ever national title.
He won the Larke Medal as the best player and was named the captain of the All-Australian side.
"The championships were really important and I circled those games to stamp myself as one of the better players so I was really glad I was consistent over the four games," he said.
"To win the Larke Medal and be the captain is such a massive honour and to have Colby (McKercher) as well come second is pretty cool to have two Tasmanians. We've been really close, we played under-12s state together so to succeed and be judged the two best players at the champs is pretty cool."
Sanders and McKercher proved a lethal one-two punch during the championships, with the pair complementing each other's game in the midfield. The left-footed McKercher's polish fitted well with Sanders' inside grunt, with Sanders focusing this season on adding more to his game.
Recently he also had an hour on Zoom with Western Bulldogs star Bailey Smith, asking plenty of questions to the 100-game midfielder.
"My ability to find the ball is probably my main thing and be really clean with my hands," the 18-year-old said.
"The biggest thing I've really progressed this year is getting on the outside and really improving my running and kicking goals. I like the really good players like Lachie Neale, Clayton Oliver, (Luke) Davies-Uniacke and those types, and I like Horne-Francis as well with the socks up."
Davies-Uniacke could be a teammate next year if the Roos get their way and have priority access to Sanders, who has an Indigenous background and is part of the North application to get access to him under Next Generation Rules in an assistance package.
"Obviously, it's good that North Melbourne is keen on me. I'd be happy to go anywhere, whether it's North Melbourne or wherever I end up going. I'd just be happy to get a chance on an AFL list," Sanders said.
"I've been talking to North Melbourne since I was 15, so they've always been good to me. If I ever need anything, they always say to just let them know. They have always been good to me."
It would mean a change of allegiances, though. Sanders grew up a Gold Coast fan after his dad coached former first-round Suns Kade Kolodjashnij and Jesse Lonergan through the Tasmanian talent team.
"They'd always come back home on their breaks and bring Gold Coast Suns gear. I'm talking heaps – guernseys everyone had signed, training tops and all of that and I absolutely loved Gary Ablett. He's still my favourite player of all time," Sanders said.
"I ran out with the team when they played at UTAS against the Hawks. I can't remember how old I was, about eight or nine.
"Mum emailed Gold Coast and said 'My son is a big Gold Coast fan' so they said 'Sure, let's get him out there' and I got a photo in front of Gary Ablett's locker and they gave me a jersey. Getting to meet my hero was one of the favourite moments of my life so far."