• Jayden J Bartlett

Lauren Young: her two-year journey

Perched above the crowd, 16-year-old Lauren Young watches a game that she loves so much get played without her. Her blue eyes glimmer at the sight: either glimmering with hope or with the reflection of the powerful stadium lights. There is something about the sight. She was, she is, the best player in the South Australian National Football League Women’s (SANFLW) competition. But now she sits on the scoreboard, alone, in the Noarlunga night.

Generally, Lauren’s weekends are spent as the self-appointed hype girl for the West Adelaide Football Club. But on this particular night, she acts as the fill-in scoreboard attendant. She sits with a panoramic view of the oval; one she would happily trade to be out there. She looks like any ordinary footballer, awash in the black and red of her team, the only indication that she is a player; and with a bandage wrapped around her right knee, the only hint at her unfortunate past.

Her team is losing, but she masks her frustration with a simple yet effective sheepish grin. It is a simple expression that defines who she is: a talented footballer yes, but just an upbeat teenager at heart. “Football means a lot to me,” Lauren says smiling. “It's really nice to see people keen to come to the games together on a Saturday arvo, have snacks and a couple drinks if they’re feeling rowdy. It’s the most Aussie thing I’ve ever seen.” Those in the crowd below us seem to mimic her words: they laugh, drink, cheer.

The Scoreboard Perspective - image by MWM

So, how does it feel to have had the best SANFLW season on record? “I was happy with my season, but definitely a lot of room for improvement. You expected something a little more exciting didn’t ya.” That I certainly did. Because last year in 2021, and at the age of only 15, Lauren played her debut SANFLW season in which she won the league Best and Fairest: making her the youngest player in South Australian men’s and women’s state football history to receive the award.

“On the night it happened, I was going in thinking I wasn’t going to get anything. I was there to be the hype girl basically,” Lauren laughs. “I was in shock when I won stuff because I thought ‘is there another Lauren Young here or something’.” Echoing cheers interrupt the subject, the opposition has scored. Being a scoreboard attendant at night is a tough ask, even for a Best and Fairest recipient. White flags, somewhere out in the darkness, dictate the score change: one flag means a behind, two flags mean a goal; in this case, it was a goal.

She changes the score. At that moment, all the attention is on her. The floodlights above cloak the area with their electrised glow. The scoreboard acts as her stage. All eyes are on her. Under the pressure, she changes the score with ease; as if it’s a drop punt or a chest mark. Then, like a student, she sits straight back into her chair.

She was in year 10 at the time of winning the SANFLW Best and Fairest. “Afterwards, I was like ‘okay I’ll probably be alright at school tomorrow’, but then they brought out the whole freaking camera crew and I was thinking ‘oh well I’m kinda stitched here aren’t I’. So that was a bit of a weird day: but yeah, it was really nice,” Lauren says giggling.

This is a side of success that she both loves and hates. “I mean, I guess who doesn’t like a bit of hype, but after a while it makes me a bit uncomfortable,” Lauren says. “But I just roll with it, I find it funny now when people bring it up.”

In that year, a lifelong dream became a reality for Lauren. At 15 years old, she received an under-19 South Australian state selection. She won the 2021 Breakthrough Player Award. She won the 2021 SANFLW Coaches Award. The attention on her was inescapable: people knew of her, and people talked about her. Yet here she currently sits, watching her team play without her. Spectators pass by without giving her a second glance; those that do, are checking the score behind us.

West Adelaide's 'hype-girl' - image by MWM

The summer of 2021, West Adelaide’s preseason. That was when Lauren ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Now, she sits seven metres away from the boundary line, but it will be another seven months before she can cross it and play again.

Her attention toward the match fades as she reflects on the heart-wrenching experience. The moment that brought her to here, to this spot on the oval. It is a moment she recalls so vividly and so passionately it is as if she is out on the oval in front of us right now, suffering it all over again. “It was the last minute of the handball game, until the session was over when I did it. And I said to the physio, ‘no don’t even stress, it’s a corky, we’ll be fine’, obviously I wasn’t,” Lauren explains. At first, Lauren was kept in the dark about the true nature of her injury to postpone her from hearing that her season was over.

She curls and fiddles with her earth-coloured hair as she continues to reflect on that moment. “He told me it was a meniscus, and I was like ‘oh no like 6 weeks’ then I went into the scan and because there was so much swelling and stuff he couldn’t tell what it actually was.” She stretches out her legs, resting them on the railing that separates us from the cars parked below. “It ended up coming out with an ACL and I was like ‘oh 12 months, easy, okay’ but yeah the physio who checked my knee that night knew there was no ACL there, but he didn’t tell me.”

“But yeah, I don’t really have words for it to be honest. I like went outside, had a little cry,” Lauren says softly. She looks out over the oval, and the glimmer in her eye begins to shimmer and swell like moonlight on the ocean. “It’s been a rough two years.”

The blasting of car horns jolts the attention back onto the match, the Bloods have kicked a goal. She instinctively claps and she cheers. The sight of her cherished side scoring overrides the wounded grin with a proud smile. It is as if she is out there with them celebrating. But the off-beat claps carry a tune of guilt, regret, and sadness; because that is just it, she isn’t out there celebrating with them – she is stuck here on the scoreboard. “It’s quite sad that I can’t be out there, I honestly would give my other knee to be playing out there,” Lauren says with soft laughter. “But I love seeing how well my friends are doing, that’s one of the main things getting me through this tough time.”

It is not the injury that hurts her as much as the feeling of being alone. She still attends every training session. She talks to other players about their ACL injuries. Yet, beneath the upbeat grin that she so proudly and reliably displays; she still carries that sense of loneliness. Like an outcast, watching from afar. Or like a scoreboard attendant who watches the game that they love to play, get played without them - with only the backdrop of the Noarlunga night for company.

Except, she isn’t alone. She has her family, her friends, and her team. And sadly, there have been several SANFLW players who have suffered ACL injuries during this season, and many more around the country. Paris and Lucy, two of her close friends and teammates, come and join us on the scoreboard. With their arrival, Lauren reverts to an upbeat teenager once more. Forgetting the sad account that she had just been reflecting upon.

(left to right) Lucy Boyd, Lauren Young and Paris Francis - image by MWM

The siren sounds, her team has lost. She momentarily shares her teammates' pain before smiling once more. She is the Bloods’ hype girl after all. Before she leaves, she excitedly remarks on the people the Power are signing for their inaugural AFL Women’s side. “They’re really starting to bring out people aren’t they,” Lauren says excitedly. “I wonder who’s going to be next.”

And with that: she was gone. Almost as soon as we first met; the meeting was over. Once safely off the scoreboard, she heads straight across the oval to regroup with her Bloods’ teammates. A SANFLW Best and Fairest walking across the vast green deck: a hint at her past or a mirage of events to come?

Or maybe it is a promise – a promise that Lauren Young will soon play the game that she loves so much once again.

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Minutes with Moose would like to thank Lauren Young for telling us her story.

All of these photographs have been taken by the MWM team.

#WatchtheWomen #SANFLW #GenW #MinuteswithMoose

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