SANDHURST will be looking to turn a netball season of dominance into their first A-grade flag in 10 years in Saturday’s grand final at the QEO.
The Dragons enter their clash against Golden Square having dropped just one game all season and were the first team through to the premiership decider a fortnight ago with a nine-goal semi-final win over the Bulldogs.
It was the third of three victories for Sandhurst over Golden Square this season, the first two coming by margins of 26 and 22 goals.
But the Bulldogs would no doubt be greatly encouraged by a much-closer semi-final result and are never to be underestimated as they prepare to line-up in a fourth consecutive grand final.
Sandhurst will be contesting it first grand final since 2012 and aiming for its first premiership since 2007, which was the third in a hat-trick of flags for the proud club.
No matter which team wins on Saturday, it will be a first BFNL premiership win as coach for either Sandhurst’s Tamara Gilchrist and Heather Oliver, or Golden Square’s Allira Holmes.
All three coaches are new in their roles this season and have done a superb job to lift their respective teams into the season decider.
But while the stakes are obviously higher than they have been at any stage throughout the season, Oliver hinted her side’s team mindset during the week had not changed from throughout the season.
“A grand final makes the girls feel a little bit nervous, but at training this week we have talked about …. ‘you guys know what you need to do this week, play your roles, play your positions like you have every other game and you’ll be fine’,” Oliver said.
“I think anything can happen, the girls have worked their tails off and they deserve to be in the grand final.
“We are not really talking about the end result, it’s about the process, it’s about playing your roles – they know what they need to do in each area of the court and we’re very confident if they don’t get the job done, we’re proud of them, and if they do, than we’re still proud of them.”
As their 17-1-1 record and status as the league’s highest scoring team indicate, the Dragons possess class in all areas of the court.
Importantly – and unlike many rival teams – they also possess the personnel and class to nullify the influence of star Bulldogs shooter Gabe Richards, who produced arguably the best of her three BFNL seasons to finish third behind Oliver and Gisborne runner-up Maddy Stewart in this year’s Betty Thompson Medal.
The Dragons’ defence of two-time league medallist Oliver, Imogen Sexton and Carly Van Den Heuvel is a clear league’s best.
Sexton and Van Den Heuvel are among the feel-good stories of the grand final after working their way back from injuries.
Sexton, who returned this season following an ACL injury, started the year in A-reserve before making a spot in the top grade her own, while Van Den Heuvel missed last season’s finals with an elbow injury.
Gilchrist, who in her first year in the BFNL and this year led the league to a win in the Netball Victoria Association Championships, said Sexton had continued to get better as the season progressed.
“She didn’t play the first three rounds, still just working on her recovery coming back,” she said.
“She started up in the attacking end, to really get comfortable on the court.
She’s just gone from strength-to-strength through the season and is paying super netball now.”
The former North Bendigo premiership coach has clearly relished her move to the BFNL and is intent on ending the Dragons’ flag drought at 10 years.
It shapes as a massive day for Sandhurst, with the club represented in four of the five grand finals to be decided.
A busy day for the Dragons will kick-start at 9am in the 17-and under clash against Maryborough.
They will also feature in the B-grade final against Eaglehawk (noon) and A-reserve against Kangaroo Flat (1.30pm).
Meanwhile, rival coach Holmes insisted only a whole-team effort would cut it against a Sandhurst team she had no hesitation in labelling as the “competition benchmark”.
“We spoke about it (on Thursday night), we are not going to change our game plan and focus on players in the opposition so much, but focus on our own game plan and how we execute our skills on game day,” she said.
The Bulldogs will field a vastly different team to that one which lost last year’s grand final to Kangaroo Flat.
Gone are Holly Guerra, who returned to play in a HDFNL premiership with Colbinabbin, Abbey and Ashley Ryan (Eaglehawk), Belinda Pinner (Mount Pleasant) and Nicola Mulquiney.
Among the inclusions are midcourters Andrea Wilson and Delaynie Caldwell, who only this season made the step up to A-grade, and goal attack Julie Fennell, who was part of last season’s A-reserve premiership.
Holmes said even during the pre-season she had been confident in the abilities of her team’s newcomers to get the team to the pointy end of the season.
“I was really impressed with Delaynie during pre-season and obviously we had a lot of hit outs before actually choosing squads, she said.
“She was a younger player I saw a lot of potential in and she’s definitely stepped up.
“Even seeing the votes in the Betty Thompson, she picked up quite a few votes throughout the season, which I am really proud of.
“She’s so determined and willing to learn, she just wants to know and do her best, and (know) how to adapt her game.”
It will be a milestone occasion for Georgia Anderson, who will be playing her 50th game for the Bulldogs.
While for Bulldogs centre Wilson, the opportunity beckons to be part of a second premiership win this season, following her Northern Football League Women’s victory with Bendigo Thunder.
The Bulldogs last won a flag in 2015 under former coach Lia Marrone.