FOOTBALL – NORTH GIPPSLAND – BLAKE METCALF-HOLT*
FEW people have experienced the incomparable sensation moments before booting a ball 50 metres afield while 50,000 equally cheerful and loathing bystanders precariously wait for your effort.
Tom Hutton, who spent four years as a starting punter for the Division 1 football program at Oklahoma State University knows that feeling.
The Latrobe Valley local has since left that life behind, and it preparing for his next challenge, as senior coach of Yallourn Yallourn North Football-Netball Club.
Hutton returns to his native club, coming full circle from his time as a junior footballer at George Bates Reserve.
Last season, the Jets squandered the chance of going back-to-back in their first two complete seasons in the North Gippsland Football-Netball League, falling to Churchill in an Elimination Final shoot-out.
Hutton, who returned to the club amid YYN’s 2023 season, admits the group fell short of expectations.
“I think we underachieved (last) year,” Hutton said, “and we let our own standards slip.”
The first-time coach expects the playing group to drive stringent standards and take accountability for those principles.
Hutton succeeds dual premiership coach and YYN games record holder, Barrie Burnett – a giant at the club.
Admittedly burnt out from his five years at the helm, Burnett approached Hutton to take over the reins.
“I was probably done last year after the premiership,” Burnett said, “knowing the side needed a new voice to reinvigorate them.”
However, Hutton’s approach offers a unique lens to what the playing group has seen.
“(Burnett) was very big about getting the best team on the park and letting them play their natural game,” Hutton said.
“I still want guys to play their own game but there will be a much more structured approach to the game plan as a whole.”
Four years in a professional and competitive environment moulds that structure Hutton hopes to implement.
“Discipline and toughness” Hutton said are the mental and physical drivers Oklahoma State head coach, Mike Gundy, would drill into his players.
Repetition was a constituent of Gundy’s training regime, and Hutton said that “rather than try to mix it up all the time, he found what was important and he would drill that into us.”
While that intense infrastructure boded well for him, Hutton knows those strategies and philosophies are not completely applicable to local football.
“It’s a new level of professionalism and structure, almost like military style, everyone does exactly what they’re told,” he said.
“That just doesn’t work at local footy, these guys are working full-time jobs and then coming to training after work, it’s not their sole purpose.”
Despite no immediate coaching aspirations, following his meeting with Burnett, Hutton said there was a time of self-debrief following his offer.
“I didn’t know how well they’d respond or how well they’d stick together having a complete outsider coming in taking over the coaching job, and I already had good relationships with 80 per cent of the team, I thought I’m probably the right guy to take over.”, Hutton said.
An earnest reflection can only come from the true affection he has for YYN, once that was worked out, it was all up to him.
“It was more me thinking I need to do it that initially drove it and then the more ideas I had, the more I thought ‘yeah, maybe I can do this’ and it got me more excited to do it rather than thinking I had to do it,” Hutton said.
Hutton is a highly regarded local footballer with many coaching figures across his journey that instinctively shaped his leadership.
A member of the Morwell FNC’s last two senior premiership sides in the Gippsland League (2013 and 2014), Hutton recalls Tigers senior coach Harmit Singh leading a relentless formation that entrusted all to their roles regardless of their opinion or feelings.
Returning to YYN in 2015, Hutton was awarded the Mid Gippsland FNL Best and Fairest in his homecoming season, becoming one of only four YYN players to do so.
His Morwell premiership teammate, Adam Bailey, came across to coach the then Bombers that same year.
“He brought us from nowhere to the top of the ladder,” Hutton said.
“Seeing those principles he brought, he’s a teacher and a really good people person too.”
With the club revitalised, YYN would make two consecutive Grand Finals (2015-16) after years near the bottom of the ladder, only to lose on both occasions.
Hutton’s punting career started in 2017, meaning he missed subsequent flags at YYN in 2019 and 2022.
Possessing a raking left foot kick, which he used to damaging effect in local football, Hutton decided to see if these skills would be transferrable to other sports.
Engaging Prokick Australia, a company aimed at bridging American colleges with talented Australian kickers in the hopes of joining their squads and getting them a college education, the planets started to align for the YYN boy.
Hearing of other bids by local footballers such as Maffra’s Hayden Burgiel successfully gaining scholarships in the States, only made Hutton want to proceed with this further.
“I went down there for just a try-out session,” Hutton recalled.
“(They) told me to keep coming back and then about three weeks later I had a phone call from Oklahoma State and then everything got serious from there.”
Soon after, he was stepping out for one of his first few punts in front of 50,000 avid Oklahoma State fans.
Opting for an AFL drop punt rather than the traditional spiral kick turned heads, even from his teammates, but it was comfortable, and it worked.
In his four years in the system, Hutton compiled a total of 7686 yards punted in which 18 times he punted for over 50 yards.
In a game against Kansas State in the latter portions of Hutton’s final season, a seemingly regular play, he followed his punt to attempt a tackle on a Kansas State runner after he broke multiple tackles.
Before even getting to the player with the ball, Hutton was hit innocuously, awkwardly twisting his knee, meaning his career at Oklahoma State would be cut short due to an ACL tear.
Returning to Gippsland, the new Jets coach said he was motivated to win a premiership for his home club.
“I was lucky to win two flags at Morwell, but it wasn’t with the guys I grew up with and it wasn’t at the club I grew up around,” he said.
“Being able to experience that is what drives me and what drove me to take up the job.”
Where there could be hints of jealousy or kiasu, Hutton has nothing but admiration for the success the club has gone on to achieve.
“Seeing the guys like Baz (Burnett) who’ve been through it and then persevered through that and gotten so close so many times and finally win it, there is nothing in me other than pride for the club,” Hutton said.
“I was just ecstatic for the guys that finally won it (in 2019),” he said.
Challenges will inevitably present themselves throughout the year, but with his devotion to the club and the depth of talent, Hutton looks set to topple more goals from an impressive and constantly checked-off sporting bucket list.
*Blake Metcalf-Holt is a final year Sports Media student contributing stories to the Latrobe Valley Express.