THREE years ago in April of 2010, the Bendigo Advertiser devoted a full-page Footy Focus feature to Huntly.
Why? Because the Hawks had just won their second game in a row.
Such was the enduring lack of success the Heathcote District Football League club had suffered through, two wins in a row – against Mount Pleasant and White Hills in rounds three and four of 2010 – was big news.
The decade of struggles for the Hawks have been well documented.
Between 2002 and 2011, the club claimed 10 wooden spoons in a row, during which it won just nine of 160 games.
In August of 2007, the club’s future was put on the line at a community meeting.
Among the options presented at the meeting was to fold.
But they were the dark years – and while they were not that long ago – the Hawks are finally flying and on the edge of premiership glory.
On Saturday they meet defending premiers Lockington-Bamawm United in the HDFL grand final at Elmore.
Again, to get a perspective of where the Hawks have come from, only two years ago they lost to the Cats by 163 and 162 points in their 2011 home and away meetings.
There would be no prouder person in Bendigo this week than Hawks’ president Ian Sladden, whose committee has done a power of work to lift Huntly off the canvas and into a grand final.
“It’s surreal after where we’ve come from,” Sladden said this week.
“What this means is we’ve been able to put some structures in place that are probably correct ones.
“It’s a credit to the whole committee, because it was only a few years ago that there was talk of folding... the club couldn’t generate any money and couldn’t recruit any players.”
However, the first significant step in the revival of the Hawks happened during the 2009 season when the club had its long-awaited social rooms opened, allowing the club to generate increased income.
Four years on, the Hawks now arguably have the best facilities in the HDFL, which has been recognised by the club hosting four of the past five grand finals.
While the social rooms have helped set the Hawks up strongly off the field, on-field the stunning turnaround has been led by coach Stacy Fiske.
The Hawks recruited Fiske, who has VFL experience with the Bendigo Bombers, as an assistant coach to Ash Wilson in 2011.
Fiske then assumed the reins as senior coach in 2012.
“Stacy has done a fantastic job,’’ Sladden said.
“He’s so professional in the way he goes about. He leads by example and is just a genuinely good bloke who is passionate about his footy.”
From just one win in 2011, the Hawks recruited virtually a whole new team for 2012, with the focus purely on quality.
Their list of arrivals in last year’s Bendigo Advertiser pre-season football magazine tallied 18 players.
They tapped into the Bendigo league – particularly Golden Square and Sandhurst – Goulburn Valley league and down in Melbourne and put together a side that led the Hawks into their first finals series since 2001.
The list of recruits last year included Tom Curry, Braidy Dickens, Ryley Dickens, Michael Fitzgerald, Chris Gleeson, Matthew Klein-Breteler, Adrian McErvale, Angus McKinley, Luke Ross and newly-crowned Cheatley medallist Ryan Semmel, who have all impacted the HDFL the past two seasons.
Perhaps with a satisfaction of just making the finals last year, the Hawks stumbled at the first hurdle, losing to North Bendigo by seven goals in the elimination final.
“There were still some of the players who had been there for a few years stay last year, but we knew we had to go out and recruit,” Sladden said.
“We wanted to make sure we went out and got quality. We were able to do that, and not only did we get good footballers, but we got great people.”
Having broken the finals drought last year, the Hawks weren’t content to rest on their laurels.
They added to their list in 2013 and built on last year’s foundation, finishing the home and away season second on the ladder and being the only team to defeat LBU.
But the big question is can they beat the Cats again on the big stage of grand final day?
The Cats are playing in their fourth grand final in a row and chasing their third-consecutive flag.
Compare that to Huntly, which has never played in a HDFL grand final, and last won a premiership in 1940 in the Bendigo District Football Association.
“A couple of years ago, no-one would have given us any hope of getting to where we are,” Sladden said.
“Last year we were probably a bit inexperienced. Now we’ve got a side where everyone is buying into what we’re all about and when you’ve got that, anything can happen.”