Congratulations to 16-year-old Emma Stark, who became the youngest field umpire to officiate in an elite AFL competition, following her AFLW 2022 Round 1 debut.
Before commencing proceedings in the Essendon v Hawthorn match, the young whistleblower from Northern Territory also appeared for a quickfire interview in front of the TV cameras.
Emma’s mother Karen was flown in from Darwin by the AFL to witness her daughter’s induction into the biggest stage at the AFLW, with over 12,000 spectators in attendance under the lights at the Docklands (Marvel) Stadium.
“Insane” is the word Emma used to describe the whirlwind of emotions surrounding her milestone match. Although she was quite calm in the lead-up to the Round 1 match weekend, “it actually hit me when I was packing my bag” to head to the stadium from the hotel, she noted.
At the venue, Emma soaked in the atmosphere fully, allowing herself a look around the stands. She was also presented with her official umpiring shirt, with Karen there by her side to celebrate the momentous occasion.
“I remember actually slightly tearing up because it was such a beautiful moment. I know that I’d never forget what I was doing right at that moment. It was really special to me,” Emma said.
“I definitely wanted to reach elite level sometime in my [career]. But I didn’t realise it would come this quickly, and I am very grateful for that.”
Emma is the sole field umpire in the Season 2022 AFLW Umpiring Panel representing Northern Territory, alongside NT umpiring colleagues Cooper Ranie (boundary) and Isabelle Rawsthorne (goal).
Emma took up umpiring at 13 within the Northern Territory Football League (NTFL). In 2021, she became the youngest female field umpire to officiate in a Men’s Premier League match, and has since taken charge in eight Men’s Premier League games.
Having scaled new heights with her AFLW record following her debut alongside experienced field umpires Alex Whetton and John Howorth (who is also Emma’s umpiring mentor), Emma said, “To have two AFL umpires by my side as I am debuting – I did not take that for granted. I used their knowledge to my advantage. I had their support with me.
“Obviously, knowing John so well, I really had that connection with him. He just said, do what [you] normally do, and keep smiling.”
She was also buoyed by the positive feedback she had received from the AFL Umpiring review afterwards. “We went through the game together…some team dynamics. Overall, they said I did very well and I should be proud of myself,” she mentioned.
For Karen, Emma’s maiden AFLW match and their overall gameday experience were even more special. She had unfortunately missed Emma’s umpiring debut in the NTFL Men’s Premier League. Emma was drafted into the matchday panel at short notice, and Karen had already been at her work shift that day.
“But to be present for her AFLW debut was very special, and just thanking the AFL to fly me down to be present to watch Emma debut…[it] was absolutely amazing. It will be something that I’ll cherish forever,” Karen said.
“I stood over the race (at the Docklands Stadium) and watched her come out, and it was very special. I was very proud.”
With the focus turning onto Emma’s record during her AFLW debut, Karen felt Emma has coped well with the attention that came with the territory, thanks to her motivation and dedicated mindset.
John was first introduced to Emma while he shadowed one of her junior umpiring matches in the summer of 2019 in Darwin. He was immediately impressed with Emma’s ability and willingness to learn. “Everything that we worked on or that we mentioned to her, she’d immediately implemented it. You didn’t have to tell her twice,” John said.
He witnessed Emma’s AFLW debut run-out, being one of the field umpires on the Round 1 panel. John commended the way she overcame initial nerves, and displayed amazing confidence and clarity with her decision-making and composure. “She never stopped smiling. She just loved it,” added John.
Emma plays football with St. Mary’s Football Club in the NTFL Women’s Premier League, and also represents the NT with the NT Thunder. In 2022, she was named the Northern Territory’s Junior Sportsperson of the Year, and made her Women’s Premier League debut. She was the NTFL U15s’ Best & Fairest winner and Leading Goal Kicker awardee in 2021, and won the U18 Girls’ Best & Fairest for the past 2021/22 NTFL season while playing up an age-group.
Emma also umpires netball within the Darwin Netball Association, and played netball for seven years.
With her schoolwork, umpiring and playing commitments, Emma said her secret to wearing so many hats is reflecting on her progress and identifying areas of improvement, and staying organised (which involves a colour coordinated calendar!).
The best piece of advice she’s received during her umpiring career is “backing yourself, so having that confidence. But also, of course, having fun is a big priority,” she noted.
In her spare time, Emma loves hanging out with her family and friends, but her go-to activity is heading out on a bike ride to the beach.
Well done, Emma, on reaching this momentous milestone. We wish you the very best going forward.
Featured image: Emma Stark before the 2022 S7 AFLW Round 1 match between Essendon and Hawthorn at Docklands (Marvel) Stadium. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos)