THE Bendigo Pioneers went almighty close to breaking their season duck in the AFL Victoria TAC Cup under-18s football clash with Eastern Ranges on Saturday at Epsom Huntly Reserve.
After being in front for all of the match, Bendigo was stunned by a Ranges goal at just 40 seconds to go.
The Pioneers teamed superbly to be up by 28 points in the third quarter of the clash with the second-placed Eastern.
Bendigo coach Brett Henderson said some quick breakaways at midfield stoppages led to Eastern goals.
"We allowed their midfield too much space and time at some stoppages and they really hurt us," Henderson said.
"The pressure was terrific for a lot of the match and the accountability for an opponent was so much better," said a coach who like many of the players is yet to achieve a TAC Cup victory.
"Today's performance was terrific in so many areas," Henderson said of the Pioneers willingness to pressure and to link up through every line.
"A defeat like this should hurt.
"We cannot accept that close enough is good enough.
"As much as it hurts, we have to learn from this loss, the bad and the good points."
Henderson believes the next four or five games on the Pioneers fixture are all winnable.
"We have come a long way since round one," he said of the 107-point loss to Murray Bushrangers at Benalla.
"That's a credit to all the boys for the way they have worked at training and in matches."
Maryborough's Bailey Edwards marked his best match of the season by being the Pioneers best.
"Bailey played a mix of wing and on-ball and competed well all match.
"He is a class TAC Cup player," Henderson said.
Sandhurst's Tommy Cole did a lot of work in and around contests.
"He is a fierce competitor and did all he could to get that long-awaited victory."
Cole's clubmate at Sandhurst, Lachlan Tardrew again featured in Bendigo's best.
Red Cliffs teenager Jonty Marciano capped his TAC Cup debut with a goal and was another to feature in the Pioneers top six.
"Jonty played exciting footy at times. He has an X-factor about him."
Another first-gamer, Eaglehawk's Matt Higgs kicked a goal.
Moama's Lachlan Schultz inspired team-mates with his attack at the contest.
The Bendigo Pioneers attack was led by South Mildura's Josh Ryan and Cohuna Kangas' Rhys Free on three goals apiece.
Gol Gol's Kobe Mutch was hurt early in the final term.
Initial reports were a broken ankle, but it was later revealed Mutch's injury was a sprain.
Manangatang's Xavia Elford injured a knee.
The Pioneers take on Western Jets next Saturday at Burbank Oval.