WESTERN Bulldogs captain Ellie Blackburn has started her ascension to becoming the No.1 midfielder in the NAB AFL Women's competition, according to Dogs coach Nathan Burke.
The first-year mentor revealed a pre-season conversation where he challenged Blackburn to take the next step in her game following the Dogs' 25-point win over St Kilda on Sunday.
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It pushed Blackburn into her most rigorous pre-season from four to date, culminating in 17 disposals and a best-on-ground performance in the Dogs' season opener.
"Step one in becoming the best midfielder in the competition, I'll give her a tick," Burke said post-match.
"I challenged Ellie right at the start (of pre-season).
"I said, 'can you be the best midfielder in the competition, not just one of the best, can you be the best?'
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"I think deep down she wanted to say yes, but pride probably prevented her from saying it. I said, 'I think you can, so let's train and prepare yourself to be the best'.
"The first quarter-and-a-half, she was outstanding. She was the difference in a lot of ways."
Burke's hard love extended to the entire Dogs playing group, lifting the fitness of the group and proclaiming, 'we won't lose games because we're not fit enough'.
It prompted Blackburn, who was named All-Australian in 2017 and 2018, to take the advice and change her pre-season habits.
"I probably haven't been the fittest person over the first few pre-seasons," she told AFL.com.au.
"But coming into this pre-season I definitely wanted to make sure I was up the front in the running groups, able to run out games of football and I've been able to do that.
"I thought I was pushing myself but probably came to realise I wasn't pushing myself as hard as what I could've been.
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"It was a bit of a reality check for our entire group, particularly from last year where we got overrun in a lot of games and it was a big focus for us."
Blackburn's skills as the game's best midfielder will be put to the test against Demons Elise O'Dea, Karen Paxman and Daisy Pearce when the Dogs host Melbourne at VU Whitten Oval on Friday night.