Marcus Windhager feared he might not play an AFL game this year after facing the prospect of back surgery in his early days as a Saint.
Fast-forward to the present and Windhager has taken the scalps of competition stars Lachie Neale and Tim Kelly and is preparing to play his 18th match at the elite level.
The medical staff’s decision to dodge surgery and rehabilitate the 19-year-old’s back paid off in a big way for him and St Kilda, with the Next Generation Academy graduate one of the club’s biggest positives in 2022.
Windhager has twice topped 20 disposals in the past month: firstly a career-high 23 against Kelly’s West Coast before adding 21 on Friday night in a successful shutdown job on Neale.
Neale won only 15 disposals in 105 minutes opposed to the teenage Saint, who even forced the 2020 Brownlow medallist to escape to the forward line in a desperate bid to have an impact.
It was the first time all season the Brisbane midfielder failed to win 20 disposals, with Windhager’s impressive effort earning him the penultimate Rising Star nomination of the season.
Coach Brett Ratten unleashed him as a tagger in the past four rounds, with Geelong’s Cam Guthrie and impressive young Hawk Jai Newcombe his other targets.
“Playing on these sorts of guys, prolific midfielders, is a growth area for me and it helps me follow the patterns of these elite midfielders and, in a way, they sort of take me to the ball,” Windhager told News Corp.
“It’s a good learning tool for me to follow these guys and see what type of patterns they run and their work rate, from stoppage to stoppage.”
Lions coach Chris Fagan questioned St Kilda’s blocking tactics on his star on-baller, but Windhager himself received four free kicks on the night and conceded just one.
Veteran teammate Seb Ross, who won a match-high 32 disposals, gave Windhager tips throughout the week on Neale’s characteristics at stoppages, while assistant coach Ben McGlynn studied the star Lion’s vision with him.
“He’s a superstar player, so I was pretty nervous leading into the game and did a lot of prep, just to see how he plays and what he does,” he said.
“But the support of my teammates went a long way and helped me a lot.”
Kelly’s speed and workrate proved difficult to contain, Windhager said, but the gun Eagle won only two disposals in 38 minutes as his opponent, Champion Data numbers show.
Windhager, an ex-Australian junior basketballer who played alongside NBA draftee Dyson Daniels, has missed only one match since making his debut in round 4, and that was because he was in the AFL’s Covid protocols.
Not bad after being left “a little bit rattled” after being involved in a car accident on his way to that first game.
“It’s something I’m really happy about and proud of. At the start of the year, to be honest, I wasn’t even sure I was going to play,” Windhager said.
“I was nearly about to have back surgery and I was more focused on the VFL season and sort of just getting in among that.
“But once I got my first AFL game, I just thought to myself, ‘I want to build on this and be a part of this team and have success with them’.
“Obviously, it didn’t pan out that way, but I’ve taken a lot of important takeaways from staying in the team for this period of time and it’s something I want to build on for next season.”