Related coverage: Video: Eaglehawk coach relives thrilling netball grand final
Eaglehawk broke its 13-year A-grade premiership drought in one of the most thrilling Bendigo Netball League grand final victories of recent seasons against Sandhurst on Saturday.
The Hawks hadn’t led until ex-Sandhurst goalshooter Abby Gilmore broke the hearts of her former team-mates with a goal in the last play of the game to put Eaglehawk ahead 31-30.
The umpires blew the final whistle before the next centre pass, with Eaglehawk’s bench players and supporters rushing onto the court to celebrate, while Sandhurst players slumped to the ground.
It was an unbelievable comeback by the Borough, which went into the match hot favourites, but trailed by 11 goals in the third quarter as Sandhurst controlled the first three terms.
Sandhurst burst out of the blocks to lead 9-1 midway through the opening quarter, with goalers Jasmine Finnigan and Lucy Spalding capitalising on the good work by their star mid-courters.
At the other end, Gilmore and Christie Rogers clearly suffered from nerves as they missed their opening seven shots of the match.
With Eaglehawk wasting many gilt-edged chances, it looked like the Borough’s fears of playing its grand final in the second semi-final two weeks earlier – when it beat Sandhurst by 17 goals – were being realised, but the Hawks rallied to score the final five goals of the quarter.
Eaglehawk shuffled its combinations at quarter time, with first-year player Heather Oliver moved into goalkeeper on Finnigan, where the two former Bendigo Spirit team-mates were locked in an enthralling duel for the rest of the game.
Coach Amanda O’Neill, carrying an Achilles injury, came onto the court into wing attack, pushing Brittany Eastman into centre and Carmel Mulcahy to wing defence.
The reshuffle worked early on as the Hawks reduced the margin to a goal, but Sandhurst adjusted, with centre Brianna Dalrymple-Monro and skipper Ebony Evans in wing attack displaying a precise passing game.
Despite requiring treatment for a suspected dislocated finger during the quarter, Spalding played on and, along with Finnigan, scored five goals for the term.
Chloe Watson’s height and reach continued to unsettle Gilmore each time she had a shot and her clamp-down role helped Sandhurst again break away to a 12-19 half-time advantage.
The Hurst came out firing again after the break and opened what seemed a matchwinning lead.
With scores at 21-15, the maroon and blue netted five goals in a row to establish the biggest lead of the game.
It looked as though Eaglehawk’s second loss of the season – and first to Sandhurst in four meetings – would come in the season finale.
However, the Hawks battled on and closed the margin to 26-19 with the final four goals of the quarter to retain a glimmer of hope.
And the Two Blues carried its momentum into the last term, scoring four of the first five goals to bring the big crowd to a fever pitch.
O’Neill lifted for the Hawks, willing her side to apply its renowned defensive pressure and the Borough got on top across the court.
But it was Gilmore, who finished third in the Betty Thompson Medal last Monday night, who showed why she is one of the stars of the league by holding her nerve when the pressure was at its highest.
The young gun scored 10 of her team’s 12 goals for the term, as Eaglehawk scored eight of the last 10 goals to seal a famous victory.
Gilmore finished the match with 21 goals, three more than Finnigan who was restricted to just two goals in the final term by Oliver, who was named best on court.
Eaglehawk coach Amanda O’Neill admitted after the match she thought her team was finished when trailing by 11 goals in the third term.
“I honestly did, I thought we just need to keep going and try and shorten the margin a little bit more,” she said.
“But credit to our girls we just kept going and kept going and fought and our defenders stepped up and we just worked the ball down a hell of a lot better in that last quarter.
“It was (unbelievable). We didn’t play our best, obviously, for the first three quarters. We worked our stuff out at the end and it obviously paid off. Credit to Sandhurst for those first three (quarters), they were absolutely fantastic and had us in all sorts.”
O’Neill praised Gilmore for her composure under pressure, helping her new club to its first title since 1999.
“Just give her the ball and she got it, so it was exciting. As soon as we knew that (Gilmore and Rogers) were on we were in for a good show for sure,” she said.
“It means heaps (to the club), it’s 13 years, we’ve been in there a few years ago and lost by one after being up all game as well, so we never let our heads down and fought to the end, which was just fantastic.”
Sandhurst coach Jannaya Webb was gracious following the club’s second straight grand final defeat and proud of her team for recovering from a big loss to the Hawks in the second semi-final.
“I’m really happy with the way we’ve come out and played today, when we played them last time a couple of weeks ago it was a 17-goal difference,” Webb said.
“And we couldn’t lose to a nicer bunch of girls, they’re actually really lovely girls and they played hard and deserved that win – that was a great win for them.
“There’s not a great deal you can say, we certainly had our chances. You can’t say much at all (to the players), they’re going to be disappointed. That’s sport and that’s why we play the game.”