While his contemporaries’ careers have stumbled, Stephen Hill’s star continues to rise.

YOU could be forgiven for thinking there’s a curse attached to the AFL’s Rising Star award.

Fremantle midfielder Rhys Palmer took out the gong for 2008 and played just five games last year before a serious knee injury required a reconstruction.

Now the crop of 2009 is feeling the pinch. Runner-up in last year’s award, Adelaide’s Andy Otten, damaged a knee pre-season and is out until 2011. Third-placed Tayte Pears, from Essendon, has a fractured forearm and is out until midseason. Same for equal fourth-placed Callan Ward from the Western Bulldogs, who has osteitis pubis. And the Crows’ Patrick Dangerfield, who came fifth, has missed several weeks with a broken hand. And winner Daniel Rich hasn’t matched the stellar heights of last year.

Which leaves just one of the top half-dozen. That’s Stephen Hill, of Fremantle. And the contrast with his peers is stark. Firstly, Hill is fit. Secondly, he’s in very, very good form.

Fremantle’s dramatic improvement is one of the emerging storylines of 2010. But it’s also overshadowed another great yarn. And that’s Hill’s swift climb from elite youngster to elite. If Hill’s debut season was impressive, his follow-up is proving much better, a point made emphatically in the Dockers’ first win at the Gabba last Saturday night, when Hill was a clear best on ground with 32 disposals.

Not content with setting up the win, he helped seal it. A beautiful dummied handball, with just a goal the difference and 2½ minutes left on the clock, allowing him to turn onto his raking left foot and bomb one over the pack, where Chris Mayne raced into an open goal.

The rangy runner averages 21.3 disposals a game, up from 14.8 in 2009. He ranks No. 1 at Fremantle for inside-50s and loose-ball gets. Then there’s the quality of his disposal. Hill is equal-third in the league for inside-50s. More significant, though, are the percentages of those inside-50s retained by his team. For Hill, it’s 76 per cent. Geelong star Paul Chapman is the next best,with 66 per cent.

AFL talent manager Kevin Sheehan witnessed Hill’s rapid rise as an under-18 in the space of a few months two years ago. Now it seems the process is being repeated at senior level.

Asked whether he believes Hill has taken another big step, Sheehan doesn’t hesitate: “Definitely. He’s getting stronger and he’s got more confidence in his ability. A year under his belt and another year of conditioning have him heading towards the elite category, no doubt.”

Hill, though, crept up on the recruiters. Regarded initially as a fringe player for Western Australia in the 2008 under-18 championships, Hill’s form in the trials, then the carnival, was so good it earned him All-Australian honours. Fremantle upped the ante further by taking him at No. 3.

The Dockers, like everyone else, had looked on in awe during the draft camp as Hill smashed the record for the agility test. Simon Lloyd, now Fremantle’s player development coach, remembers it well. “Some players were really tense about the testing, but you could see him laughing and joking with people, and then he just stood up to the line, broke the record, and sauntered off. He’s a big-game performer,” he recalls.

And one, adds Lloyd, with a work ethic to match. “He consistently demands excellence from himself. People probably think of him as a smooth runner who runs really hard forward of the ball and has beautiful skills, but for us it’s also that he’s highly team-orientated and works as hard the other way.”

Lloyd could add durability to that list. Hill played every game in his debut year, and while his Rising Star peers have been stuck in the medical room, he’s played every game this season.

Lloyd says Hill never complains, “just rolls the sleeves up and gets on with the work”. In the two years before being drafted, he worked as a labourer in a brick paver factory. “I would start at 6am,” Hill told The West Australian. “It was pretty hard, physical lifting and working with concrete. I would work until about three or 4pm, sometimes 5pm, then depending on what day I was training, would race home, get changed and go to training. It was pretty tough.”

That level of mental resilience is important to note in a player whose smooth running not only gives meaning to the word graceful, but can erroneously create an image of one who hasn’t needed to get his hands dirty.

But his athletic ability was apparent early, as Hill’s mother, Stephanie, told The Age’s Emma Quayle before his draft selection. ”He was three years old and I couldn’t even keep up with him,” she said. ”He went off to Auskick and he’d get the ball in the middle and just run off with it. Or he’d kick it from the middle to the goals, and none of the other kids would get to touch it. They ended up having to yell out to him to stop, just so they could get the ball off him.”

A decade or so later, well on the way to becoming a star of the AFL, there’s a score of bewildered and beaten opponents who wouldn’t mind asking Hill a similar favour.

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