THE race for the Loddon Valley Football League double chance has tightened up again following wins to Marong and Newbridge in round 16 on Saturday.
While the undefeated Bridgewater continues to power along on its merry way four games out in front, the fight for the last two spots in the top three is full of intrigue.
With two rounds remaining, just four points separates Bears Lagoon-Serpentine (40), Marong (40), Pyramid Hill (40) and Newbridge (36) from second to fifth.
For the second time this season, Marong and Bears Lagoon-Serpentine played out a thriller on Saturday.
When they last met in round seven the Bears won by three points, but the return bout at Serpentine was even closer as the Panthers clung on to win by one point, 14.11 (95) to 13.16 (94).
It was a vital win for the Panthers - who haven't finished top-three since 2004 - that kept their double chance destiny in their own hands.
The Panthers were under pressure at half-time when they trailed by 19 points, 9.5 to 6.4.
However, third terms have been one of the Panthers' strengths this season and they again stepped up in the "premiership quarter", kicking four goals to one to cut the deficit at the final change to four points.
The Panthers carried their momentum into the last quarter when they opened up a 15-point advantage, before the Bears rallied late, kicking the last two goals of the game through Cody Gunn, only to fall short by the slimmest of margins.
"Chris Morgan was superb in the ruck and we were able to get a lot of clearances in that third quarter when we got back into the game," Marong coach Corey Gregg said.
"In that last quarter we got 15 points up, but we spent a lot of petrol tickets to get to there from where we had been and like last time, they came hard at us.
"But this time we were able to hang on to get the win."
Captain Richard Tibbett led the way for the Panthers, kicking three goals from centre half-forward.
Ruckman Morgan and the onball duo of Gregg and Craig Morris were also influential for the Panthers, who had to battle a man down for 15 minutes during the first quarter after Zac Boyer was reported and yellow-carded.
Marong's Josh McKee was the game's leading goalkicker with four.
The one-point loss ended the Bears' five-game winning streak, but they still climbed a rung on the ladder from third to second.
"We were a bit poor in the second half and just lethargic... it's hard to put the finger on," Bears coach Damien Featherby said.
"Our kicking in the second half (4.11) didn't help, but fell credit to Marong, who applied good pressure and won the game."
Tom Cartledge, star midfield recruit Gareth Bowes and Shaun Bowles led the better players for the Bears, who had Justin Wilson kick three goals.
• The ladder showed a clash of first versus second, but it was another one-sided win for Bridgewater.
Taking on an under-strength Pyramid Hill side, the Mean Machine had 37 scoring shots to nine in a 78-point victory, 18.19 (127) to 8.1 (49), at Bridgewater.
"We've certainly got a lot of respect for Pyramid Hill and they had a few missing today, but our boys played well again," Bridgewater coach Andrew Collins said.
"We used the ball and were hungry.
"It was good to see young Harry Symons kick three goals and Isaac Broadbent gave us some really good run off half-back."
The Mean Machine kicked nine goals in both the first and second half, while the Bulldogs kicked four goals in each half.
Collins booted six goals for the Mean Machine and now has 26 in his four games back from a broken collarbone.
Collins was among the best for Bridgewater, along with key forward Brad Rohde (three goals), midfielders Adam Parry and Zeb Broadbent (two goals), who have both had outstanding seasons, and Darren Clutton.
The defeat was the Bulldogs' second in a row and sent them from second to fourth on the ladder - only the second time this season they've been out of the top three.
"We knew going in it was going to be very tough and they showed again that they are a very good team," said coach Paul Grayling, who was among the Bulldogs players sidelined on Saturday.
"But the scoreline was an improvement on last time (84-point loss) when we had a much stronger team in on paper, so that's something we'll take out of today.
"We were just outgunned by a very good side."
The Bulldogs named Dylan Morison, who had the big job on Collins, consistent youngster Liam Bartels and Balraj Singh their best players.
Mid-season signing Troy Parker kicked four of the Bulldogs' eight goals.
• Newbridge regained its spark with an 84-point hiding of Mitiamo at Riverside Park.
A week after their upset loss to YCW, the Maroons downed the Superoos 23.10 (148) to 9.10 (64).
After leading by 15 points at quarter-time, the Maroons blew the game open in the second term when they kicked seven goals to two to build a 45-point buffer at the long break.
"We've had a flat month, but we got back today to the way we want to play," Newbridge coach Matt Dillon said.
"We saw this as a big danger game and the whole 22 responded."
While Rhys Ford and David Carroll have been the chief goalkickers for Newbridge this year, the Maroons had another ace up their sleeve on Saturday in Chris Dixon.
In his first senior game since round three, Dixon bagged seven goals for the Maroons, who had they not lost to YCW by one point last week would be second on the ladder, instead of fifth.
"We tried something a bit different. We pushed Rhys (Ford) out to a flank and played Chris out of the square. We just wanted him to create a contest, but he had a really good day to kick seven goals," Dillon said.
As well as Dixon's seven, Ford and Carroll kicked four each for the Maroons, who were also well served by onballers Jordan Gilboy and Brad Comer (three goals).
Matthew Perri kicked five of Mitiamo's nine goals to be the Superoos' best player.
Tom Grant, James Drake and Terrence Reeves also played well for the Superoos in what was their sixth-consecutive defeat to Newbridge.
As well as losing the game, Mitiamo also lost coach Denis Grinton to a sickening career-ending medial injury and dislocated hip in the first term.
Grinton - who has been playing senior football for 26 years - was stretchered off and taken by ambulance to Bendigo Hospital, where he spent Saturday night.
• For the first time since 2011, YCW has won back-to-back games.
The Eagles backed up last week's one-point win over Newbridge with a 111-point belting of Inglewood, 27.13 (175) to 10.4 (64).
Daine Lowry (six), Steve O'Keefe (five) and Nick Waterson (four) kicked 15 goals between them for the Eagles.
"We spoke about the importance of continuing on from last week and not slipping back into old habits," YCW coach Pat Jess said.
"It was tight at quarter-time, but our focus for the rest of the game was to play our style of footy, move the ball quickly and not to play too cautiously and we did that well."
After they were held to three goals in the first quarter, the Eagles slammed on nine in the second, seven in the third and eight in the last.
The Eagles' score of 175 was their highest since booting 32.6 (198) against Bears Lagoon-Serpentine in round 16, 2007.
Nick Waterson, Jordan Crisp, Levi Moss and Ryan Walker all played standout games for the Eagles, who inflicted the fourth defeat in a row by more than 100 points on the Blues.
Brett Wilson, Joe Hartney and Jayden Sheean led the best players for the battling Blues, who had Ben Rose kick three goals.