IN four years since his time with Fremantle, Haiden Schloithe has turned himself into perhaps the best all-round player not in the AFL system in Australia and he couldn’t be prouder to have received the Sandover Medal after his outstanding 2017 season with South Fremantle.
Schloithe originally joined South Fremantle from Katanning to play in a colts premiership before then being added to Fremantle's rookie-list for the 2012 and 2013 AFL seasons.
He couldn’t quite make it for an AFL debut but when he returned to South Fremantle full-time in 2014, he was at the age and of the mindset where he was ready to really make his mark as an outstanding WAFL footballer.
The result was a fairest and best winning season for the Bulldogs in 2014 and then despite an ankle injury in the first half of the 2015 season, and a foot complaint through the mid-part of 2016, he continued to be a tremendous contributor when on the field.
Finishing the season strongly and by getting to play finals at league level for the first time with South Fremantle making the preliminary final only inspired Schloithe further heading into 2017.
He had the best pre-season of his career and hit the ground running to start 2017. He ended up delivering a brilliant season where he proved himself a dominant midfielder who could win the hard ball but also be damaging out in space.
On top of that, when he went forward he proved tough to stop on the lead, in one-on-one battles or at ground level. The end result was him averaging 28.5 possessions a game, kicking 27 goals and the-24-year-old brought up his 100th game along the way when he kicked five goals against Claremont.
Schloithe's season was also highlighted by being part of the WAFL's historic state game victory over the VFL in Melbourne before it ended in last Sunday's preliminary final loss for South Fremantle against Subiaco.
That wasn’t the way he was hoping to enter the Sandover Medal count on Monday night with the Bulldogs missing out on a Grand Final berth with a second straight preliminary final loss, but by the end of the evening he was part of WA football folklore.
Schloithe ended up winning the Sandover Medal with 52 votes to win ahead of teammate Tim Kelly on 45, and he couldn’t have been prouder to become the first Bulldogs player to win since Toby McGrath took it home in 2005.
Highlighting how much the medal means is that Schloithe knows just how much it would have meant to Ashton Hams when he went so close in 2015.
"It feels pretty special. You don’t really come into the season expecting to win individual awards, it's more about team success and it was obviously really disappointing that we bowed out on Sunday, but to come away with the most prestigious individual award in the league is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life," Schloithe said.
"I was at home the year that Ashton came runner-up and I was really disappointed and upset for him that he wasn’t able to win the award on the night because I feel like he deserved that recognition. He's my best mate and to now win this award myself and have him here to support me and be here with me tonight means the world to me."
Given the disappointment of Sunday's preliminary final loss to Subiaco, that's what occupied Schloithe's mind for the most part on Monday.
It wasn’t until he arrived at Crown on Monday night when he started being wished good luck by all and sundry that he thought winning the Sandover Medal might be a reality.
"You try not to play these things over in your head too much but I knew I had a pretty consistent year and that if I was able to poll well at the start I knew through that middle stage of the season I played my best footy. I was lucky enough to get a few votes and then I thought I was half a chance," he said.
"During the day I didn’t really think about the Sandover at all. I was disappointed with the way we bowed out on Sunday and that's where a lot of my thoughts were. You can't help but replay the game over in your head and think about what you could have done differently.
"But once you get to the count and start to meet everyone, and a lot of people are talking to you about being a good chance to win, that's when you start to get a few nerves. But I still never came expecting to win and it's a great surprise, and honour."
Schloithe was also proud to occupy the top two spots on the Sandover Medal leaderboard with teammate Kelly.
As much as Schloithe would love another opportunity on an AFL list and feels at 24 years of age and with 108 games of experience that he'd be much readier to capitalise on it, he would be just as pleased for Kelly if he achieved a chance at the top level.
"Tim is an absolute freak of a player, he's had a fantastic year and it's unbelievable for him to do so well in the count as well. He is a good friend of mine and I wish him nothing but the best for the future. I really hope he gets an opportunity in the AFL," Schloithe said.
"Obviously I was drafted as an 18-year-old kid and I had only been in Perth for a year so I was pretty raw and new to that system. But now I'm 24 and I've spent six years at South Fremantle, I've played over 100 games and I feel like I've developed and matured as a person and footballer. I feel like if I was given that opportunity a second time around I'd grab it with both hands."
Schloithe is now proud to have put together four strong seasons since returning to South Fremantle full-time in 2014.
That season he won the Bulldogs' fairest and best award kicking 25 goals and averaging almost 24 possessions a game including 38 in Round 4 against Swan Districts, 37 in Round 5 against West Perth and 30 in Round 16 against Perth.
He then had a brilliant start to 2015 before injuring an ankle against Claremont on Good Friday. He was back by Round 12 and finished the season strongly highlighted by 11 goals in a three-week burst and then 26 touches and two goals in the last round.
That gave him some momentum to take into 2016 and he had a strong first half of last season before suffering a foot complaint that sidelined him between Rounds 13 and 18. He was back in time for his first taste of finals at league level, though, and was one of South Fremantle's best in the preliminary final loss to Peel Thunder.
After two injury-interrupted seasons, he remained fully fit in 2017 and his game went to another level as a result. Whether playing in the midfield or forward, he proved a class above in the WAFL and he puts that down to being able to have a full pre-season and to remain healthy.
"It wasn’t so much a point to prove that I was good enough to be on an AFL list, I just wanted to get back to the club that I love and the club that gave me my opportunity when I came up from the bush. I wanted to get back to playing footy that I knew and my family knew I was able to produce," he said.
"I haven’t really changed too much. Obviously I had a pretty consistent 2014 and the last couple of years I've been hampered by a couple of serious ankle and foot injuries. But to be able to play the back half of last season and get a full pre-season coming into this year really helped. It just comes down to me being able to get a full pre-season in."
While Schloithe would embrace another chance at AFL level, what he is desperately craving is achieving premiership glory with South Fremantle especially having now lost consecutive preliminary finals.
But aside from that it's his family and especially his mother Tammy, father Darren and sister Brenna who mean the world to him particularly with their unwavering support.
"Besides making the Grand Final next weekend and winning it, the best thing in the world for me is having the support of my parents and family," Schloithe said.
"They travel up every Friday night from Katanning to come and support me, and over the last six or seven years they would have missed five or six games in total. Their support and care, and everything they have done for me off the field are all things I can't thank them enough for. I absolutely love them to bits."