Youth girl football star trains with Bendigo Pioneers squad
ALL-Australian schoolgirl footballer Bella Ayre has been invited to train with the Bendigo Pioneers under-16 squad, alongside the region's best boys.
The Kerang teenager is the first female to join the elite Pioneers program as part of a ground-breaking initiative by AFL Victoria.
There are no plans for the 15-year-old to take the field for the Pios - the move is purely designed to boost her football skills in a high-performance environment.
"We provide these opportunities for promising boys to develop, so we should provide the same opportunity for girls," said AFL Victoria female development manager Chyloe Kurdas.
Ayre, who played in boys' teams as a junior, is considered a future star of women's football.
In her first youth girls season last year, she dominated ruck contests and kicked 32 goals for the Huntly Hawks, taking out the Bendigo league and her club's best-and-fairest awards and being named best on ground in the grand final, which her team lost.
She was selected as an All-Australian at the School Sport Australia under-16 carnival in Darwin in August, where Victoria finished runner-up.
And she represented Victoria Country at the national under-18 female championships in Shepparton in May.
Ayre was selected in the 2014 Youth Girls Academy, based at the North Ballarat Rebels, but travelling three hours from Kerang to the fortnightly sessions was taxing on her family.
Joining the Pioneers, she now trains weekly a lot closer to home.
Her older brother Samuel is in the Pios' under-18 team.
Ayre said it was a huge honour to be the first girl in the region given this opportunity.
"I was stoked to be chosen and I'm really excited to be training with this group of elite boys," she said.
“They are pushing me and motivating me to get better.
“At first I was a little bit nervous, but the boys were very welcoming. They’re all so encouraging and friendly and they’re happy to have a girl out there having a go.”
Pioneers under-16 coach Dean Sheldrick said Ayre had fit in well with his squad.
“She has trained well and is working to get her fitness up but I have been really impressed by her skills and her decision making.
“The guys have accepted her as just another member of the group.”
Last year, Victorian youth girls co-captain Maddie Keryk did a full pre-season with the Calder Cannons as part of a pilot scheme.
It was deemed such a success that 11 senior state-level female players have started training with under-18 TAC Cup squads and there are now women and girls actively involved at other clubs including the Geelong Falcons, Northern Knights and Sandringham Dragons.
Kurdas said Ayre was herself a “pioneer” for female football in central Victoria.
“She is doing something that has never been done before and helping to change the football landscape in the area. We are hoping down the track to have a youth girls academy based in Bendigo and Bella is helping pave the way for a whole lot of other girls in the region.”