James Cousins hit his peak at the right time.
The Mansfield teenager has been a consistent high level performer in his top year with the Murray Bushrangers, named in his side’s best six players in 12 of 18 games he played in the TAC Cup.
Unsurprisingly the midfielder was a runaway winner of the John Byrne Medal as the Bushies’ best-and-fairest, nine votes clear of his teammates in second place.
But with the prospect of an AFL career ahead of him Cousins, 18, never lost focus on Year 12.
With dad Ken and mum Andrea teachers, dropping everything to focus on footy was never an option.
‘‘It’s obviously not easy, but I manage schoolwork and footy pretty well,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t try and take footy too seriously. I know how important school is with Mum and Dad both teachers.
‘‘Dad’s my physics teacher at school, so I know the importance of that balance.’’
Cousins completed his exams at Mansfield High School earlier this month, not shying away from getting stuck into some difficult subjects.
Alongside physics, he completed English, methods and further maths while putting in the effort to do VCE physical education in Year 11.
Cousins said his dad had influenced him in all areas of life and not just academically.
Ken, a life member of the Benalla Football Club, had the constant message for his son that if something was worth doing, it needed 100 per cent commitment.
And that is how Cousins approached the past two years with the Murray Bushrangers.
Last year’s underage season was good, but this year was exceptional.
Cousins could not put a foot wrong during the middle of the season, one of his side’s best in nine consecutive games.
His run only ended in round 17 against the Oakleigh Chargers, when he pushed through a bout of tonsillitis to continue to take the field.
Cousins’ ability to influence games was on full display the previous round, starring against a strong Sandringham Dragons outfit.
Kicking three last-quarter goals, he spurred the Bushies on to a victory despite the team being down by 19 points at three-quarter time.
Cousins said he thought he would rank highly at the best-and-fairest night, but did not expect to take out the top award.
‘‘It was pretty surprising. I thought after the year I had I might have been up there in the top couple, but to win was very surprising and humbling,’’ he said
The accolade comes after Cousins spent his underage year with Murray as a defender.
But after working on his fitness he made the full-time move into the midfield at the beginning of this season.
‘‘Throughout my junior football I played midfield even though I probably wasn’t fit enough or strong enough. I played a couple of games in the midfield last year and that warmed me into it and this year I stepped up,’’ he said.
After his effort against the Dragons, Cousins was selected to play with Richmond’s Victorian Football League side, a team aligned to the TAC Cup team.
Kicking a goal in the Tigers’ VFL win against the Northern Blues, he thrived on the opportunity to compete against the bigger bodies.
‘‘That was a pretty high standard. It was pretty cool, I trained for a month before I played which was pretty sweet to see the environment and the facilities,’’ he said.
‘‘The thing about the VFL is it’s a bunch of young blokes who want to play good football, so it’s a great environment.’’
Each aspiring player has a moment when they realise that making it into the AFL could become a reality.
For Cousins it came when he was invited to the state combine, meaning up to three clubs had nominated him as a potential recruit.
‘‘I always wanted to pursue it, it’s been a dream for as long as I can remember,’’ he said.
‘‘But I guess when I got invited into the state combine during the year when a couple of clubs showed a bit of interest, that’s when I thought potentially it could happen.’’
Meeting with clubs is tough for teenagers, but Cousins said it was often just a measure of personality.
‘‘It’s daunting, it’s like a job interview. I think as long as you be yourself that’s all you can be,’’ he said.
One of just 180 footballers in the country to be tested at the state and national combines at Etihad Stadium last month, Cousins said his parents had been influential in ensuring he could follow this path.
They have had no qualms driving more than 100km to Bushies training in Wangaratta, or down to Melbourne for other football commitments. ‘‘It’s obviously been difficult but Mum and Dad have been amazing with it,’’ he said. ‘‘They haven’t thought twice about taking me over twice a week throughout pre-season and then throughout the normal season.’’
Ken and Andrea will be hopeful that next year they continue to rack up the kilometres, travelling to watch their son wherever he lands.