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Recruiting Files: Lever

CrowsDraft: Pick No. 14 Jake Lever Jake Lever, a competitive and tall defender, joins the Crows at pick no. 14 from the Calder Cannons
Jake Lever in action during an AIS-AFL Academy training session at Aegis Park, Melbourne, on 3 April, 2014. (Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/AFL Media)
Jake Lever in action during an AIS-AFL Academy training session at Aegis Park, Melbourne, on 3 April, 2014. (Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/AFL Media)
We just looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, this bloke is top two or three next year’
Hamish Ogilvie

National Recruiting Manager Hamish Ogilvie tells how promising defender Jake Lever overcame a year out of footy to become a Crow with pick No.14 in the 2014 AFL National Draft.

Lever’s football career started with the Romsey-Lancefield Rangers in the Riddell District Junior Football League as an eight-year-old. He progressed through the ranks in Romsey, 60 kilometres north of Melbourne, playing in the midfield and then up forward. He displayed even greater versatility at the 2011 Under-15 Victorian Championships where he lined up at full-back. 

The following year, Lever was named captain of the Under-16 Barry Davis Calder Cannons squad and also selected to play for Victoria Metro at the Under-16 National Championships. Despite kicking 33 goals in three weeks for the Romsey Under-16s, Lever played as a defender for Vic Metro and his performances earned him a place in the 2012-13 AIS-AFL Academy squad …

“Jake was prominent in his Under-16 year so he was on the radar then because of his performances, but I knew a little bit about him before that because I’d coached up the bush where he comes from.

“He was always a good player. Believe it or not, he was actually bit of a chubby kid who grew and lost weight as he got older and taller! As a 16-year-old, Jake was probably six or seven centimetres shorter than he is now and a good 10-12 kilograms lighter.

“He played a few different positions. He was probably a bit more midfield when he was younger, but then he grew and developed.”

Also a talented boxer, Lever shot to the top of draft boards of AFL recruiters across the country in 2013. The ‘bottom-aged’ prospect, who wasn’t eligible to be drafted until the next year, dominated at TAC Cup and national level …

“Jake’s 17th year was when everyone really sat up and took notice. He played at an extremely high level right from the minute he walked into the TAC Cup competition.

“I can remember a game Calder played at Craigieburn. Playing at Craigieburn isn’t easy when you’re tall because it’s so windy, but Jake was taking fantastic marks in the backline and controlling the ball.

“(Eastern Recruiting Operative/Analyst)Scotty (Degabriele) and I were sitting there watching and we just looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, this bloke is top two or three next year’.  

“The other standout game for me was at the Under-18 National Championships. Vic Metro were playing against Queensland in Brisbane. It was a really physical game. The ground was quite small and as a result guys were just crashing into each other. From memory, one of Vic Metro’s good players got injured early and was carted off to hospital.

“Metro were missing a couple of their leaders and Jake was captain that day – I can’t remember too many other 17-year-olds captaining their state.

“Both teams had good talls. Vic Metro had Mick Apeness and a couple of other big blokes in their forward line. Queensland had some really good tall kids, who were pretty raw and athletic.

“Jake just controlled the backline and probably from then on it was done in our minds. We didn’t need to see too much more from him … and then he did his knee.”

Lever injured his knee in November, 2013, when he landed awkwardly in a contest during a training camp with the AFL-AIS Academy on the Gold Coast. He initially didn’t think the injury was serious, but scans revealed a rupture of the ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament). The prospective first-round draft pick didn’t play a game in 2014 but impressed in other ways, working diligently in his rehabilitation and taking up a coaching role with Vic Metro …

“I went to London with the AIS-AFL Academy squad in 2014 and my memory of Jake on that trip was him running the rehab group. Jake took the boxing sessions, got them all organised and made them work hard.

“You wouldn’t have even known he was going to be out for the whole year. You do see some kids flat and frustrated when they’re injured in those Academy camps, and they can’t join in with their mates. But Jake never showed any disappointment.

“It was obvious that he was a leader off the field as well as on it, which is exactly what we saw in his first year at our Club when he came in and won the Dr Brian Sando OAM Trophy for professionalism.

“Jake’s mum (Narelle) and dad (Alan) were on that trip as well, so we got to spend some time with them too. I knew his dad a bit already. We played in the same competition and he was working in juvenile justice when I was a copper.”

Lever’s determination to stay involved as much as possible saw him complete the on-field warm-up with the Calder Cannons on TAC Cup Grand Final day, even though he couldn’t play. He capped off his rehab by completing the Noosa Triathlon just prior to the National Draft …

“No one told Jake to do a triathlon. He just did it. I think it was about having a reward at the end of his rehab.

“It was his ‘Grand Final’ that year.”

Lever’s injury made him one of the more difficult players to place in the 2014 AFL National Draft. The Crows did their due diligence, but their interest in the impressive defender never wavered.

The final confirmation Ogilvie and co. needed came from would-be No.1 pick, Paddy McCartin on the morning of the draft …

“We knew Paddy was a footy head and very footy smart. We were talking about a lot of key defenders as a recruiting team and we wanted to see who he thought were the most competitive kids, how they played and what they did well.

“Paddy rated Jake as the best by far and the hardest to get a kick on. Paddy was a strong kid and is a really good mark, so that was a final nice tick of approval just before the draft.”

The Crows, who slid down the draft order from pick No.10 to 14 to improve their second-round pick (used on Harrison Wigg), were confident Lever would be available at their first selection.

There had been talk Melbourne, which held pick Nos.2 and 3, was considering him. But the Demons opted for two midfielders, Christian Petracca and Angus Brayshaw, and Lever made it through to Adelaide’s pick No.14.

Some pundits questioned why the Crows had overlooked South Australian key-position prospect Sam Durdin, who went to North Melbourne two picks later, in favour of a Victorian coming off a serious knee injury. But Ogilvie and his team were confident they’d got their man …

“We talked about Jake’s injury. There was never any footage of it happening. We went back with the doctor to try and look at how he did the injury, and if there was a risk of it happening again.

“I think every club with picks ahead of us considered him. All the recruiters knew him really well. I’m not sure if it affected his position. Maybe, it was a bit of out of sight out of mind because he hadn’t played all year but he’d played a lot of footy and good footy prior to that.

“I don’t think anyone really forgot what he was capable of doing.”

Much to his frustration, Lever was eased into his first AFL pre-season. Despite that and not having played at all the year prior, the driven teenager was selected to make his AFL debut after only four SANFL games. He played a total of 12 matches for the Crows in 2015 …

“Jake’s impatient, he’s driven and wants to get there quick. I knew the coaches were probably going to have to put the handbrake on him a little bit, but when I saw his first or second game back in the SANFL it didn’t surprise me.

“Before that, I thought there was no way he plays 10-plus games in his first year. I would’ve been happy for him to play 12-15 games in the SANFL, get through and build his fitness base.

“He exceeded everyone’s expectations, I think.”

After being heartbreakingly left out of Adelaide’s two finals in 2015, Lever achieved his goal of playing every AFL game this year.

The Rising Star nominee was selected in the AFL Players Association’s Best 22Under22 for the second straight season, won the Mark Bickley Award for Emerging Talent and finished third in the AFL Coaches Association’s Best Young Player award.

Despite his wiry frame, Lever routinely put himself in harm’s way to help his team, ranking sixth in the AFL for intercept marks. His courage resulted in injury in Adelaide’s Semi-Final loss to the Sydney Swans, when the 36-gamer rolled his ankle going back with the flight of the ball …

“Jake has always been very brave and competitive in the air. It doesn’t matter the size of the opponent, he just goes. Robbie Flower wasn’t very big and neither was Ben Hart, but they seemed to do just fine! I suppose he’s a bit like Ben Hart in a way – their competitiveness just gets them through as well as a fair bit of footy smarts.”