“It’s really good to know we can match it with them and compete with their physicality and speed.” – Caleb Serong after his first two TAC Cup games.
By Russell Bennett
No footballer can make it without the support and dedication of his or her team-mates.
That’s the beauty of the sport as a team game.
The team backing Caleb Serong stretches far beyond those he takes to the field with each week, and – combined – they give him the belief to accomplish anything he sets his mind to.
Whether it’s through his close network of family and friends; teachers and school mates at St Paul’s Anglican Grammar; or team-mates at the Warragul Gulls, Gippsland Power, or on the representative stage, Caleb doesn’t have to look far for support.
Early this season, Caleb – who turned 16 in February – faced perhaps his biggest test yet in footy, both on a physical and mental level.
A badly broken collarbone from a serious fall in a senior Gippsland League game against Maffra in Round 4 required surgery and an extended stint on the sidelines.
“It was in the third quarter and I was running back and I jumped up and came down and landed on my head and collarbone,” he said.
“I don’t remember much of what happened – I remember the ball getting kicked but after that I don’t remember much.”
After a series of scans and eventual surgery, Caleb spent the next seven weeks on the sidelines.
Selectors backed him in for the Vic Country under-16s against Vic Metro midway through the year just two weeks post-surgery.
“I could get back into full training – without contact – about five weeks after surgery so that was about two weeks away from when I was going to play,” he said.
“Then five-and-a-half, six weeks after surgery I could get into contact.
“I went into a game – Vic Country versus Vic Metro – pretty nervous but as soon as I got out there it was fine. I didn’t really think about it much.
“I could still feel it, but I wasn’t really thinking about it.”
Serong said the mental battle behind the injury was just as big as the physical.
“Now that I’ve got a plate and six screws in there it’s the strongest part of my body, so I just had to have faith that it was really strong and I’d done the preparation,” he said.
Serong then headed north to Queensland for the under-16 national carnival, where he was among Vic Country’s best.
When he returned, he played an Under-16s game with his mates at the Gulls before getting the call-up to make his Gippsland Power TAC Cup debut alongside Sam Flanders and Brock Smith.
Serong, still two years younger than most of the other players to take the field in the competition, had an immediate impact – starring in the Power’s hard-fought two-point win over rivals, the Dandenong Stingrays.
He then followed up his three-goal effort with another particularly strong performance against a powerhouse Geelong Falcons side.
He had to adjust to the increased pace and physicality of the TAC Cup in the early going of his debut, but that became easier with each tackle, mark, and possession.
“It’s really good to know we can match it with them and compete with their physicality and speed,” Serong said of his TAC Cup opponents.
“It’s a great learning step for us three (Serong, Flanders, and Smith) to go next year, and the year after that as well. The past couple of weeks have been a great challenge for us – they’ve been really good.
“It is a massive step up from anything else we’ve played so next year we won’t be like deer in headlights. We can go out there and just be confident that we can do it and really back ourselves in.”
Serong has had the full backing and support of both Power coach Leigh Brown and Gulls senior coach Steven Kidd and he wouldn’t have progressed the way he has without them.
“Browny has been awesome – always talking to me, especially when I was injured, about how I’m going and how it’s feeling,” Serong said.
“He’s one I’ve had a chat with about the mental side of things and just being confident and not rushing back and being precise with what the doctors were telling me. He and Pete Francis at Power have both been brilliant for me – just unreal.
“The past two weeks they’ve given me and two of the other Under-16 boys a lot of confidence to just go out there and back ourselves.”
After last season, Serong had a tough call to make between pursuing footy and cricket, but he chose the football path and hasn’t looked back.
Now it’s all about improving his game.
“I’ve always known that I’m not the quickest bloke – I can work on my sprinting a little bit,” he said.
“Earlier in the year I was quite fit but it’s been a bit of a struggle getting back after the injury and just getting that match fitness back.
“But I feel now that I’m quite fresh compared to everyone else, having had that extended break.
“I pride myself on my contested marking for my size and just doing those things you can control like putting pressure on and tackling – those sorts of things.”
Serong trained through the pre-season with Officer’s Callum Porter who, along with Power skipper Aidan Quigley, he’s full of admiration for.
“Cal’s professionalism and the way he goes about it just second to none,” Serong said.
“It’s just crazy. Watching him go about it, it’s pretty inspiring. I was just watching him in awe, to be honest, just the way he pushes so hard.
“He and Quigs are never down – they’re always up and about and keeping everyone else positive too. Those two have really helped us.”
Who knows what the future holds for Serong, but one thing is certain – it’ll be an incredibly bright one.