"Who would have thought?"
It has been a year of firsts and unexpected successes for former Wimmera footballer Jaydon Stiles.
Stiles jumped at a job opportunity in north-west New South Wales and joined the Gunnedah Bulldogs in the AFL North West league.
On Saturday, the mercurial forward put an exclamation point on a remarkable season, booting eight goals in the grand final and helping the Bulldogs to premiership glory.
"It's been a massive change," Stiles told the Mail-Times.
"With COVID changing everything, to get the opportunity to move up to 'Woop Woop' in New South Wales, play a bit of footy, and ultimately to win a flag alongside my brother ... it's pretty unexpected."
Stiles won the flag alongside his brother Josh and fellow Horsham District league footballer Liam Scott, who normally plays with the Swifts in Stawell.
"We were pretty lucky we got through the border just in time," Stiles said.
"I asked my brother if he wanted to come up north to play footy with me. He said he was interested, and asked 'When are we leaving?'
"I said, 'Tomorrow'. It all happened very quickly.
"Liam used to play on me when he was at Swifts too, so to be teammates and now premiership mates with him, and to win alongside my brother, it's pretty special."
The premiership and eight-goal grand final haul capped off a tremendous season for Stiles.
He booted 72 goals from nine matches across the year, including bags of 13 and 11, proving to be a class above the competition.
His football drew admiration from the region's football pundits, with Namoi Valley Independent journalist Mark Bode writing that Stiles would "be spoken about with reverence long after he has left the region".
"Whatever happens, he will be remembered as one of the most talented players to grace the AFL North West," Bode wrote.
"A powerfully built goal-scoring menace, whose athleticism is matched by a fierce competitiveness."
Beyond accolades and on-field performances, Stiles said he was just grateful to be doing what he loved.
"I'm absolutely not taking it for granted. I've been thinking of my mates back home who haven't been able to play this year," he said.
"I'm definitely one of the lucky ones to get out of this year with a positive outcome. I never would have thought I would be going up to New South Wales to play footy, but now I've won a senior premiership.
"I know that I'm pretty lucky."
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