IN THE SPACE of two weeks, Western Bulldogs skipper Ellie Blackburn may have already polled six AFLW best and fairest votes.
The midfielder has always been a dynamic player in the AFLW, and it's hard to believe she's only 25, such is the impact she has had in a short space of time.
But Blackburn has taken her game to a new level in 2021, averaging 21.5 disposals, 5.0 marks and 2.0 goals – career-high numbers in every category.
And she credits the work of new midfield coach Nat Wood, who was let go from her senior AFLW assistant/VFLW coach role at Geelong in response to COVID-19-induced cuts.
"I definitely think COVID was a blessing in disguise for someone like me, it gave me a bit of extra time up my sleeve to train and do different things over the off-season," Blackburn told womens.afl.
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"Coming into this season, 'Burkey' (coach Nathan Burke) really challenged me to have a bit more of an impact in games, particularly when going forward. We always say that good or great mids have a real impact in games by going forward and hitting the scoreboard and that's what he wants me to do.
"Our mids coach Natalie Wood, she's phenomenal. She's unreal, she's challenged me in so many ways. We have great conversations about getting better and ways we can keep changing the dynamics in the midfield and having a real impact in there.
"So, I think the coaching that I've received this year is gone up another level and my fitness base as well. I feel like I'm covering the ground a lot better, which definitely helps; five pre-seasons in, you'd like to think it'll pay off at some point."
An addition to the Western Bulldogs midfield this year is No.2 draft pick Jess Fitzgerald, and last year's Northern Knights co-captain surprised Blackburn with a bit of mid-game feedback in round one against St Kilda, despite being on debut.
"It's probably one thing I haven't really had a lot of in my footballing career, to be honest, where a lot of teammates come up and say that kind of stuff to me during the game," Blackburn said.
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"It's usually been after the game when you've got time to think about it, and they say, 'oh, you probably could have done this', and provide that feedback.
"But for her in her first game to pull me aside – there were a couple of times in stoppages where I just tried to rush it onto my foot, and thought I was under more pressure than I was – she told me to be a bit more composed.
"I sort of looked at her and was like, 'Righto'. I'll take it, though, I thought it was great, and I love that she did that. It just shows the type of player and person that she is."
The rebuilding Bulldogs' win over Carlton was their first in a year, and Blackburn starred in the final term, booting two goals in the come-from-behind victory.
"It was super emotional. It's been a long time since we've been able to sing the song in the rooms. I think we also now have the belief that we can do that again, I think we missed the feeling of winning," she said.
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"I think I was a little bit disappointed at myself at three-quarter time, I just felt like I wasn't having enough of an impact on the game.
"I remember walking out to the middle with 'Lamby' (Kirsty Lamb) and 'Moods' (Celine Moody) and Gab (Newton), saying we're gonna win this and we're gonna have an impact here."
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