RENEE Saulitis stood out as the only girl on a junior boys' football team.
But on-field efforts also piqued attention.
The slight, quietly spoken teenager played with an inner belief when she ran out for Warrnambool's under 14 team.
Saulitis, now 18 and on the cusp of selection in Tuesday night's AFLW draft, impressed Blues coach Paddy Dwyer with "her determination as the only girl in a boys' domain".
"She is a marvel. A very determined young girl," he told The Standard this week.
"When she came to training she'd be first there and just couldn't wait for training to start."
Dwyer remembers watching Saulitis, who played alongside his son Lachlan and nephew Zacc, embrace the challenge of being smaller than her rough-and-tumble teammates.
"Once she got to top-age she got plenty of quarters. We'd place her where we thought she could get a kick and she did more than that, she was very capable," he said.
"She had natural ability when she got the ball. Her hand-eye co-ordination to her foot was really natural.
"As they (kids) get older you're not sure what pathway they will go in but hers has always been footy, hasn't it?
"And once women's footy came along it was just a goal for her, you could see it."
Saulitis had a footy in her hand from a young age, starting in Auskick as a five-year-old.
She advanced to the Blues' under 12 and under 14 programs before focusing on female sides Ararat Storm, which played in the Ballarat league, and South Warrnambool.
"That was really good (playing with the boys), it was a little bit more rough and fast-paced than girls would've been able to produce at that age. It was a good experience to get me developed," Saulitis told The Standard almost four years on from her last game for the Blues.
"I think I played on the wing a little bit and maybe the forward flank.
"I didn't have many close friends in the team I think, I was a little bit lonely at times.
"But when it came to playing footy, the boys weren't afraid to give it to me."
Saulitis said Dwyer was supportive and "watched out for me because I was the only girl in the team which was really nice of him".
She conceded some of her teammates and opponents took a while to adjust to having a female in their ranks.
"Some of them didn't want to touch me sometimes, it was funny," she recalled.
But the experience helped fast-track her development.
"I would recommend that to girls if they're not afraid of it," she said.
Dwyer, a premiership player at Warrnambool, said he would watch Saulitis' career with interest, knowing how hard she'd worked to reach the elite level.
"With my little window with her, I hope she got something out of it," he said.
"She'll remember a few words I always used to say to them - pressure, turnover, opportunity.
"I'd say that to them all the time, she would've been sick to death of me saying it."
Football appealed to Saulitis from an early age.
Dad Brent was a swimmer and mum Raelene had a background in athletics.
She joined brother Justin in the Blues' Auskick program and that was it, she was hooked.
"I was a bit more of a tomboy I guess. And I was like 'mum, I just want to play footy' and she was like 'you should do dancing'," Saulitis said.
"I ended up doing dancing for a couple of years but got sick of it."
Representative side honours came thick and fast for the former Warrnambool College student who moved to Ballarat Grammar in year 10.
There were Vic Country gigs, NAB League opportunities with Greater Western Victoria Rebels and AFL Academy selection.
None of it came as a surprise to south-west female football advocate Alicia Drew.
"She's a freak, she's very little and she's a good kid as well," she said.
"She has a good head on her shoulders and she's pretty hungry.
"I remember the first time I saw her when she was about 11 or 12 and I thought 'whoa, what have we got on our hands here, this kid can play'.
"The way she moves is pretty smooth."
Options for budding female footballers were limited when Saulitis was playing against the boys in her early teens.
But the formation of AFLW in 2017 provided a pathway to play professionally.
"As I got older and got better at it, it was something I was striving for," she said.
"I remember we went to an exhibition game between the Bulldogs and Melbourne and I was sitting there telling my dad 'I've been watching this girl, she's really good at this'."
She can see the league's depth building and wants to be part of it, having nominated for the Victorian pool in next week's AFLW draft.
"You can see even with this year's draft class, it's gone up another notch because all these girls have played for longer than the past few draft classes," Saulitis said.
The creative small forward, who grew up supporting Essendon after "being brainwashed by my mother" before switching to Geelong, knows advice is only a phone call away.
She played with Richmond's Sophie Molan at GWV Rebels. Molan is preparing for her second season at Tigerland.
"This year I could rely on her if I wanted to ask her something or go for a kick when I was in Ballarat was really good," she said.
The pint-sized Saulitis - she's just 163 centimetres tall - is a right-footer whose agility and running capacity are her main strengths.
But, ever the professional, she's always working on her game.
"The left (foot) is not too good on the run but I could do it standing still. I'm still improving it, it's a bit awkward," she joked.
- The AFLW draft is on Tuesday night and will be streamed on womens.afl and Facebook from 7pm.