DION Johnstone addresses the large group with a confidence which once eluded him.
He stands in front of his Scotch College teammates, opponents and families and talks about the day’s game without a hint of the shyness which followed him to Melbourne from his home town of Warrnambool three years earlier.
The talented goalsneak embraced the captaincy bestowed upon him in his final year at the private school.
It was a leadership role he never expected to assume when he arrived in year 10 via Brauer College on an indigenous excellence scholarship.
“When I first went there I didn’t really speak much, was really shy, and it also didn’t help not knowing people,” Johnstone said.
“But it encourages you just to talk to people and get to know people. It’s definitely helped me confidence-wise also being the captain of Scotch.
“I wasn’t that good a public speaker but after every game I had to say a speech on behalf of the Scotch team in front of parents and the other teams as well, which also helped my confidence a lot.”
Johnstone is hoping the personal growth he’s shown, coupled with the courage to leave home at a young age to pursue his dreams, will encourage an AFL club to draft him later this month.
He has shown his capabilities – namely speed, toughness and goal nous – at various levels over the past two years playing in the Associated Private School system, TAC Cup for Oakleigh Chargers and at his home club, Hampden league contender North Warrnambool Eagles.
Those traits earned him a nomination as an indigenous category B rookie.
Reigning premier Western Bulldogs can select Johnstone outside its regular salary cap if it wishes.
“It’s basically like a third-chance thing because they want to get more Aboriginal and multicultural kids in the AFL,” he said.
“So if I don’t go in the national or rookie drafts, it’s a category B for kids who have been nominated.
“I was lucky enough to be nominated by the Bulldogs. They have first priority over me in that category B draft. If they don’t want me another club can.
“It is definitely something handy and I am very privileged to have because not many other kids have it.”
Johnstone credits Scotch College for elevating him to that position.
A country lad at heart, he took time to settle into his new surrounds.
But he persisted, made friends and adjusted to a different way of life – one with shared dormitories and an added emphasis on study and extra curricular activities.
“It’s probably the best thing I have ever done,” Johnstone said of his decision to move away at 15.
“It’s helped me to be the person I am today, helped me mature, I guess, especially living away from home.
“That was difficult. The first month I couldn’t really do it. I was thinking ‘I want to go home’ and was missing my friends and family.
“But you keep pushing through it and you make friends and it becomes a helluva lot easier.
”They’re obviously a high, elite school and that’s how they present themselves.
“I remember when I went there for an interview to meet the principal and look around the school, I was just looking around and couldn’t really believe how big it was and the way they went about things – their school work, their sports, music and science.”
Johnstone started to feel a sense of belonging at the end of year 10. The following year was a memorable one, particularly on the field.
The former Dennington junior became a TAC Cup premiership player with Oakleigh Chargers as a bottom-age prospect.
“Going all the way and winning the premiership and knowing I could play in that high level gave me a confidence boost coming into this year,” he said.
The 2016 season got off to a shaky start for Johnstone but he finished strongly, kicking 17 goals in his last six games as Oakleigh ended with a flurry.
He also made cameo appearances for North Warrnambool Eagles.
“I was a bit slow to start off; I wasn’t happy with the start I had this year,” Johnstone said.
“But towards the end of the year and in the finals series I was really happy with my performances.”
Former North Warrnambool Eagles coach Bernard Moloney handed Johnstone a senior debut as a 16-year-old, throwing him into the deep end on the 2014 qualifying final stage.
“Gerard Lourey, who was my assistant coach at the start, followed him during the year and we discussed him a bit and decided to take a risk,” he said.
“Graeme Twaddle (the current Eagles coach) assisted him through the Clontarf Academy early on as well, so we did our homework on him.
“What impressed me about him was he was a really enthusiastic young fella who was prepared to play the game asked of him.
“We wanted someone on a wing who could break the lines and penetrate into the forward line. And he has a good defensive side to his game.”
Johnstone, who played in the Eagles’ first senior grand final in September, missed out on an invite to the AFL state combine. He tested at the ‘Rookie Me’ camp a month out from the draft in a bid to impress recruiters one last time.
“It’s hit me this year knowing this is my year and I have to do something about it if I want to succeed in getting that dream,” he said.
“I’d be over the moon (to get drafted). I wouldn’t know what to do – I wouldn’t think it’s real at the start.”