FACING a fearsome run home towards the finals, Melbourne rose to the challenge, defeating Adelaide, Fremantle and Brisbane in consecutive weeks.
Eventually losing to the Crows in a preliminary final, the season was a big tick for the Demons after trading out six players during the off-season.
Over the next few weeks, womens.afl will look at each of the seasons of the 14 AFLW teams in reverse ladder order.
WHO'S HANGING UP THE BOOTS? Your club's retiring players
Coach: Mick Stinear
Leadership group: Daisy Pearce (captain), Karen Paxman (vice-captain), Libby Birch, Maddi Gay, Tyla Hanks, Kate Hore, Sarah Lampard, Lily Mithen
2021 home and away finishing position: Fourth, seven wins and two losses, 130.4 per cent. Lost preliminary final to Adelaide by 18 points.
Best team performance: Fremantle 4.8 (32) lost to Melbourne 5.7 (37) in round eight.
There were still a few lingering questions as to whether Melbourne's shock dominant win over Adelaide was an aberration but knocking off Fremantle on its home deck put that to rest. With senior assistant Jane Lange in charge while Mick Stinear stayed home awaiting the birth of his second child, the Dees held off a fast-finishing Dockers. Maddi Gay kicked the winner, while Lauren Pearce was outstanding in the ruck.
Best individual performance: Karen Paxman was outstanding in a losing side against Western Bulldogs in round four. One of two best and fairest winners for the Dees this year (along with Tyla Hanks), Paxman dominated the middle at VU Whitten Oval, finishing with 27 disposals, 393m gained, eight clearances and five score involvements.
NAB AFLW Rising Star nominations: Tyla Hanks (overall winner), Eliza McNamara
Debutants: Alyssa Bannan, Megan Fitzsimon, Lauren Magee, Eliza McNamara
Retirees: Niamh McEvoy, Shae Sloane
Most improved: Continuing a steady rise through the ranks, Tyla Hanks played as a permanent midfielder for the first time in her three AFLW seasons. Culminating in the NAB AFLW Rising Star award, Hanks averaged 18.7 disposals and 3.4 clearances this season, up from 10.4 and 2.0 as a forward/midfielder in 2020.
Star recruit: After a tumultuous off-season, trading out six players, the Dees hit the NAB AFLW Draft hard. Their second selection, Eliza McNamara (pick 15 overall), hit the ground running in round one and played all 11 games for the club this season. A winger with elite endurance, she held up relatively well with the physicality of playing in an open-age competition for the first time, averaging 10.7 touches, including 21 against Fremantle.
Unsung hero: If it's possible to be an underrated best-and-fairest winner, Shelley Scott is just that. A crucial linking cog across half-forward, Scott is one of the stronger marks going around and as the Demons racked up their wins in the second half of the season, Scott's form improved by the week.
- The mid-season magnet flip worked incredibly well, throwing Eden Zanker into the middle to become the tallest on-baller in the competition, and swinging Daisy Pearce forward to provide some stability and leadership to a line seriously suffering from the yips.
- Mick Stinear made no secret of his aim for the season, wanting to increase scoring, and for the most part, Melbourne delivered. The Dees averaged 5.5 goals – a number dragged down by three poor weeks – which was up from 4.7 last season. Melbourne kicked nine goals on three occasions, recording two of their three highest scores.
- The Dees were the best contested side in the competition, averaging 113.8 contested possessions and 43.3 hard-ball gets across the home-and-away season.
What needs improvement:
- A mid-season form lapse – particularly in front of goal, kicking 2.12 and 1.8 in successive weeks – forced Melbourne into a do-or-die situation for the rest of the season in order to qualify for finals. The Dees gave their forwards plenty of opportunity, ranked second for both inside 50s and disposals inside 50, but the constant pressure perhaps tired the team by the preliminary final.
BEST AND FAIREST WRAP Who was your club champion?
Early call for 2022: With a young group on the rise, supported by veterans Karen Paxman, Pearce, Scott and Tegan Cunningham, Melbourne should be in the mix for a top-four berth again next year.
Season rating: 8/10