Stephen Hill arrived at Fremantle at the end of 2008 a shy, skinny recruit with modest goals, but much has changed as he approaches the first milestone of his young career.
Hill, who will play his 50th game when Fremantle hosts the Western Bulldogs on Anzac Day, remains quietly spoken, but that is his way. He has grown to be a comfortable and confident AFL player.
After a reluctant beginning, the 20-year-old admits he has “come out of his shell” and is a better footballer for it.
“Feeling more comfortable just makes you feel more relaxed out on the football field and helps you get the best out of yourself,” Hill told afl.com.au this week.
“It probably took me a little while. The first couple of years I was still settling in and was a young player and I probably kept to myself a little bit.
“Now I’m settled in, I feel like a part of the team. I’ve learned to take the game on a bit more and I’ve come out of my shell, so my communication on the field is a bit better.”
After making his debut in round one, 2009, Hill blossomed into a line-breaking, goal-kicking midfielder last season, leading Fremantle for inside 50s and kicking 19 goals.
He is now a regular target for opposition stoppers and displayed an ability to have an impact despite a heavy tag against North Melbourne last Sunday.
In a built-up rematch with Roo Brady Rawlings, Hill set up early goals, kicked two himself and made the most of limited possessions while his midfield teammates enjoyed some freedom.
“It can be tough at times, but my teammates really help me out,” Hill said of the attention that has come his way almost weekly in 2011. “I’ve just got to keep working on things to beat them.
“I guess you can take them forward and see if they might be uncomfortable down there, or just keep moving around and try and catch them out a bit.
“But if they’re coming to me and it frees up other players and they end up playing well, then I guess I’m playing a role for the team.”
Hill’s team-first approach is evident in consecutive top-10 finishes in Fremantle’s best-and-fairest voting (including fourth place last year), and he has emerged as an unlikely leader.
He’s probably not “leadership-group material” just yet, he says, but he has his ways.
“Hopefully I set an example with my actions,” he says. “It’s probably not my thing or something that I’m naturally good at, but I’m slowly working on doing a bit of it.
“I more get around to the younger guys and give them a bit of advice and hopefully get their heads up a little bit more.”
Coach Mark Harvey this week declined to compare the outputs of Hill and fellow WA midfielder Daniel Rich, who was recruited by the Brisbane Lions with pick No.7 at the 2008 NAB AFL Draft.
Rich, the 2009 NAB AFL Rising Star, also played his 50th game in round five, but the public debate that initially surrounded Fremantle’s decision to draft Hill with pick No.3 in that draft has disappeared.
Harvey described Hill as a significant player who has helped get back some respect for Fremantle during a rebuilding phase. The coach agrees the electrifying No.32 has come out of his shell.
“With time, experience and growth he has learned to express himself a lot more,” Harvey said. “Not verbally, but in his performances and what he does.
“He likes to excite the team [with] a bit of dancing. I used to play with (Essendon champion) Michael Long and he was the same.
“Sometimes you don’t even know he’s around, but I’ll tell you what, when he plays football you know he’s around.”