Sport

Mooroopna’s Laitham Vandermeer signs contract extension with Western Bulldogs

By Alex Mitchell

While proving his worth to the Western Bulldogs as quickly as possible remains priority number-one, time is now on Laitham Vandermeer's side.

The Mooroopna product earlier this week penned a one-year contract extension with the Footscray-based AFL club, meaning he is tied with the Bulldogs until the end of 2021.

After being taken at pick 37 in last year's AFL National Draft, Vandermeer did not make his AFL debut this year, but certainly did impress at VFL level, averaging 15 touches through 15 appearances across a variety of roles.

The 20-year-old former Murray Bushranger said his new deal meant he could attack the coming season with an abundance of confidence.

“It gives me a bit more confidence, especially coming early in the pre-season it's a bit of a confidence boost,” Vandermeer said.

“It's a bit less stressful now and good to have that extra year to show the club what I am worth.

“I was coming off a lot of injuries and the club came to me at the end of the season, it's not about the dollars for me, just about being in the AFL system for as long as possible.”

After an over-age year with the Bushies earned him the AFL nod, Vandermeer described his first 12 months in the system as a rollercoaster, with injuries preventing him from showing his true skill.

“It was a bit up and down, getting drafted was the ultimate high and what I've been after since I was young,” he said.

“I started pretty strong with a good pre-season, but that was interrupted with a bit of an ankle, and just before the season I did a six-to-eight-week hamstring.

“Once I was back in and getting some continuity I played all right, but there was a bit of a slump in confidence there and a hamstring injury where I was a bit below par. It was a good learning curve, and getting injured as a young player is not too bad, you learn how to deal with injuries in the right ways.”

Vandermeer was part of the Footscray VFL side that finished second on the ladder this season with an impressive 14-1-3 record, but the Bulldogs were bundled out of the finals in straight sets by Williamstown and Port Melbourne, with the standalone clubs giving the youngster a lesson in where his physicality will need to get to.

He began the year as a slashing half-back rebounder, but looking to harness his pace in the seniors moving forward the Bulldogs gave him a variety of roles through the season.

“I started at half-back as a rebounding defender, but it was going to be pretty hard to get a senior game there with the stocks we have, players like (Jason) Johannisen and Caleb Daniel,” Vandermeer said.

“They moved me forward because they saw more of an opportunity for me to play AFL in that role and I went to the wing in the finals which was probably where I played my best footy.

“I'm starting as a half-forward this year and I can use my speed getting up the ground, that's where I've been playing in our match simulation so far.”

The Bulldogs’ general manager of list and recruiting Sam Power said the club saw Vandermeer as a player with plenty of room to grow and suggested a full pre-season would have him pushing for an AFL debut this year — a sentiment the young Bulldog echoed.

“It's always the case with second-year players, the club expects you to come back better, fitter, stronger,” he said.

“A full pre-season would definitely give me the best chance to play AFL, but I think with the recruits the club has brought in it's a lot harder — you look to your left and your right and you see players who are just as good as you, if not better.

“You've got to try and do something a bit more than them to earn that spot.”

Should he debut, Vandermeer would become the fifth Mooroopna product to play AFL within the last four years, joining Clayton Oliver (Melbourne), Jarrod Harbrow (Gold Coast) and Jy Simpkin (North Melbourne), as well as the now-delisted Nathan Drummond.

It is an incredible haul for a small town, yet the Cats’ success on the national stage does not surprise Vandermeer.

“It's the culture, it's a small town and we're all mates,” he said.

“When I was there I was playing with Clayton and Jy, you'd all see each other around at different things and have a kick of the footy together.

“It's the people the club has, they're very good people who help make a really strong culture.”