Once referred to as the “Queen of Queensland women’s footy,” Jade Pregelj is back in the game in 2020.
While the title is often used in jest between old friends, it’s a term not entirely without merit.
Back in the day Pregelj was a top performer of the women’s game.
A decade ago she claimed back to back Queensland state league Best & Fairest medals, to go in the trophy cabinet with her five-straight premiership medals earnt with Logan Cobras in the now-defunct Brisbane Women’s League.
She stopped playing in her early twenties to focus on her career, originally in teaching but now with the Australian Army.
But her seven-year hiatus from the sport she loved was ended when Pregelj picked up the football again for the University Hawks in Townsville and for the Australian Army women’s side, the Army Kangaroos.
Now, back close to her best, the 28-year-old is hoping make an impact in her first season of AFLW football for the Gold Coast SUNS.
Five in a row:
Pregelj first started playing football at 10 years of age after participating in an Auskick session at her school.
She was born and bred in Logan. “Legends are made in Logan,” she says.
Cutting her teeth with the boys until she was 15, Pregelj was fast-tracked into women’s football as a teenager.
She was good for her age. Very good.
It saw her picked to represent an open-age Queensland team from 2007-2011, starting from when she was 15.
The tough-bodied midfielder won five premierships in a row with Logan before going back to back in the League Best & Fairest at age 19 & 20.
In 2012 however, she made what she says was a responsible decision to pursue her career.
“Football was fun but I was studying teaching and I wanted to complete a rural prac placement,” Pregelj told SUNS Media.
“A lot of the girls I played with in those premierships disappeared from the club and it’s all about playing with your mates and being around that group of people.
“The dynamics changed and I was trying to play, coach and manage for a period which took all the fun out of it.
“I didn’t feel like it was a massive loss – I definitely missed it when I left but it was time for something different.”
Pregelj first studied secondary teaching at university.
After graduating from her degree in 2013, Pregelj went on to teach English and SOSE at Loganlea State High School.
She describes it as one of the best years of her life – but realised it wouldn’t hold up against her personal aspirations.
“Teaching is a hard job. A lot of people don’t realise how tough teaching is,” Pregelj said.
“Teaching is a very selfless career because you’re giving it all to your students every day of the week and you don’t time to learn things for yourself.
“Whereas I really wanted to develop myself and I felt like joining the Army and in particular going in as a General Service Officer (GSO) and training at Duntroon would really challenge me so that’s the path I chose.”
After her decision was made, the next big hurdle for Pregelj to overcome was the officer selection board.
She had to prove she had overcome the effects of a dislocated shoulder sustained in her football days, but after convincing the board in Canberra, received the all-clear and was guaranteed a spot.
Pregelj enlisted in January 2015 and five years later, she’s still loving her choice.
The passionate 28-year-old is now a Royal Australian Engineer.
After her 18 months of officer training at the Royal Military College in Duntroon, Pregelj then had to complete seven months of training at the School of Military Engineering at Holsworthy to be employed as a military engineer.
She chose the Corps of Engineers because Engineers got to “do a bit of everything”, just like the way Pregelj used to play her football.
“Engineers’ expertise is counter-mobility, mobility, survivability, sustainability – they’re our four functions,” Pregelj explained.
“There’s a large variety of roles and jobs within Engineers so it was never going to be a narrow field for me.
“You’re expected to know a little bit about everything.”
In a nutshell, the Engineers are the problem-solvers.
Post-Engineer officer training, Pregelj stepped into the role of troop commander up in Townsville.
It was there where her passion for football was sparked again.
Return to the game:
While Pregelj was working up in Townsville with the Army, the SUNS were scouring the state for prospective AFLW talent.
It so happened that one weekend, Gold Coast held one of its AFLW Talent ID Days in Townsville, and Pregelj already had a connection at the club.
She was coached by none other than Gold Coast’s Head of Women’s Football Fiona McLarty back when she was playing representative football in south Queensland.
That connection led to Pregelj attending as a spectator, which was followed by a conversation with McLarty about the prospects of a return to the game.
“It was impressive seeing the Talent ID day set up,” Pregelj recounted.
“The SUNS had come up and had their flags out and hired a nice facility.
“Being away for so long, it kind of tweaked that the game had a lot of momentum and support and more funding.
“It was a lot more professional.”
It was a seemingly innocuous conversation with McLarty at the time, but one which would have large repercussions.
“If you’re interested let us know and we’ll have a chat,” are the words Pregelj remembers.
Spurred by what she saw at the Talent ID day, Pregelj tried out for selection in the Army women’s AFL over the 2018/19 summer.
Her work responsibilities changed with a new positing to 6th Engineer Support Regiment at Amberley.
She now works in the operations cell as part of a larger team without directly overseeing and supporting soldiers.
“I didn’t really think too much about trying to play football for the Army in the first couple of years,” Pregelj said.
“I was too time poor at the start, but last year working as part of a larger team, I was able to go away for two weeks to play football with people to cover me.”
It wasn’t long until Pregelj’s natural flair for the game returned.
She was selected to represent the Australian Defence Force (ADF); consisting of the best players from the Army, Navy and Air Force - in an exhibition game the day before ANZAC Day against the Richmond VFLW side.
The ADF side was strengthened with the inclusions of established AFLW players Rheanne Lugg (Brisbane), Kate Lutkins (Brisbane), Celine Moody (Western Bulldogs) and Phoebe Monahan (Richmond).
“Playing them was awesome because I got to know the other girls in Defence playing AFLW and understand how they manage it,” Pregelj said.
“I realised it was something I could potentially pursue.”
Just like that, a far-fetched goal became much more achievable in Pregelj’s eyes.
The Pregelj of old was creeping back.
With a solid football carnival for the Army under her belt and a representative game with the ADF thrown in, it wasn’t long until she started getting noticed.
And it was that conversation with Fiona McLarty back in Townsville that pushed the SUNS to the head of the queue.
“After the Army carnival, when I actually started playing some ok football, I believe the SUNS were doing some scouting,” she said.
“They were aware of the Defence competition and through that Fiona realised I was playing football again and heard that I was living back in South-East Queensland again.
“She hit me up and asked if I’d be interested to play in the Winter Series for Gold Coast.
“At that point in time I was missing my Army teammates, they’d reminded me how great it was to hang out with your mates and kick the footy again.
“At the same time I didn’t know anyone at the SUNS from a bar of soap and didn’t know what I’d have in common with a new bunch of girls.”
Pregelj had only just found the fun again with her football, the same fun she thrived on at Logan for years.
And while it was a fantastic opportunity waiting for her, she was wary to put in jeopardy the crucial aspect she had only just regained.
“I was hesitant to throw myself into a new pool of people while I was only just becoming familiar with the game again,” she said.
“But Fi threw some names around that I knew from earlier footy so I thought I may as well give it a crack.
“It was daunting but obviously I’m pretty happy with the decision I made and where I am now.”
Those names McLarty mentioned were none other than Leah Kaslar and Tiarna Ernst, two AFLW veterans who Pregelj knew well.
In fact, the three of them all represented Queensland in the same team back in 2007 – where Pregelj shared the player of the carnival medal with Daisy Pearce when she was 15.
So Pregelj decided to put her doubts aside and agreed to join Gold Coast’s Winter Series team.
“When I walked into that first training session, the girls in the Winter Series team were so welcoming,” she said.
“It felt comfortable.
“The family-esque environment made everything easier and took the pressure off which just allowed me to enjoy myself.”
The rest is history.
Pregelj went on to play all three of Gold Coast’s QW Winter Series matches and took out the Emerging Player of the Winter Series award at the SUNS Club Champion.
One thing stands out to Pregelj in her 2019 year – belief.
She was drafted by the SUNS after her standout Winter Series and now has the confidence to compete at the highest level.
“I really am grateful and humbled by the belief in my teenage football reputation,” she said.
“It’s really flattering to have that support stretch over six years while I was away from the game.”
With 2019 behind her, all of Pregelj’s focus is on the 2020 AFLW season.
“I know I’ve got some valuable attributes to contribute to the team and really give this a shot.
“Everything is in place for me to be able to succeed and prove that I’ve still got some quality football in me.”
She’s played with some superstars of the game in her past and now wants to see how her game shapes up on the big stage.
“I’d love to come back and keep up with the best,” she said.
“A really humbling part of it is all the people that have said to me over the years ‘Jade you could be there, why aren’t you doing it?’
I’ve always had so much support from friends and family and I think they will be just as excited as I will be to run onto the field in 2020 with the Gold Coast SUNS.”