SANDHURST’S season-long domination of the BFNL A-grade netball competition has ended in premiership glory.
The Dragons produced their 18th – and most important – win of the season from 20 games, to defeat a gallant Golden Square in Saturday’s grand final at the QEO.
It broke a 10-year premiership drought for Sandhurst in the top grade.
The Dragons started the match as favourites following three previous wins over the Bulldogs, including by nine goals in the second semi-final a fortnight ago.
But it was the Bulldogs, who led by one goal at quarter time after an impressive start.
Sandhurst suffered an early blow, when it lost defender Carly Van Den Heuvel with an injury in the opening minutes.
She took no further place in the match and was replaced by Emma Tindell, who gave the Dragons plenty of spark at wing defence.
It was the only change the settled Dragons made during the day.
With the match played in the hottest game-day temperature this season, Golden Square coach Allira Holmes rung plenty of changes during the game.
In her 50th game for the Bulldogs, Georgia Anderson replaced Delaynie Caldwell at wing defence in the second quarter, which ended with the Dragons three-goals ahead 24-21.
The third quarter started with Caldwell at wing attack and Meg Gilbert moved to goal defence in place of Lucy Morcom.
Sandhurst was able to maintain a three-to-four goal advantage, until a run of seven straight goals – most from the hand of sharp-shooter Bec Smith – gave the Dragons a 10-goal lead with just minutes remaining until three-quarter time.
The Dragons led 38-29 at the final change and despite narrowly being out-scored 10-11 in the final term, worked their way to a well-deserved premiership and their first since notching a hat-trick in 2007.
The flag-win was achieved in the first season under the Dragons’ new coaching combination of Tamara Gilchrist and Heather Oliver.
Gilchrist, who crossed to the Dragons this season from Heathcote District club North Bendigo, where she won a premiership in 2014, said her side went into the contest expecting a tough contest and that is exactly how it panned out.
“I wasn’t surprised by the score in the first quarter or first half, we knew they were going to bring it,” she said.
“But we had confidence we could get on top.
“Sixty minutes (of netball) is such a long time, anything can happen.
“We play 15 minutes at a time, we never look to the third or fourth (quarter), or after the game, or next week, we play 15 minutes at a time – that’s always been my motto.”
As players battled temperatures which peaked in the low 30s and wind gusts up to 35km/h, Gilchrist and rival coach Holmes paid credit to all players for a great contest.
“The conditions were awful, so it was important to reiterate to the girls ‘short and sharp – short and sharp’, because anytime we tried to put anything long it got caught up in the wind.
“It wasn’t a day for that. But (the weather) was just an unlucky situation, but these girls did a great job.”
The Dragons’ success – as it has all season – was built on the supreme efforts of the entire playing group.
Wing attack Meg Williams was a clear-cut choice as best on court.
The teenager used her skills and pace to advantage and was brilliant in feeding the Dragons’ goalers Smith and Kelsey Meade.
It was the second straight year a player aged 18-or-under had won the best on court award following the 2016 triumph of Kangaroo Flat goal shooter Ruby Barkmeyer.
Her performance won the highest praise from her coach, teammate and no stranger to individual award wins, reigning Betty Thompson Medal winner Heather Oliver.
“She’s phenomenal – she’s a superstar,” she said.
“Meg plays VNL and is such a great player and person, we are so happy to have her on the team this year.
“We really have such a great group of girls, they just get on the court and do everything we ask.
“They wanted this just as much as we did as coaches.”
The performance of another Dragons young gun also won praise from coach Gilchrist.
“Imogen Sexton had one of the biggest jobs for the day as a goal keeper and she was outstanding,” she said.
“She got five intercepts on a super player..
“And Heather Oliver was just amazing – and Brooke Bolton and Bec Smith were great too.”
Smith, who made the move with Gilchrist to Sandhurst from North Bendigo, finished with 40 goals in what were trying conditions for goal shooters.
At the other end, Richards showed remarkable accuracy and finished with 35 goals from 38 attempts at 92 per cent accuracy.
The A-grade premiership bookended a super day for Sandhurst, which claimed three of the six premierships up for grabs.
The Dragons started the day by winning the 17-and-under crown against Maryborough, and also claimed the B-grade premiership with a stunning extra-time win over Eaglehawk.
Their only blemish came in the A-reserve premiership decider, which was won by Kangaroo Flat.
Bulldogs coach Holmes said she could not have been any prouder of her playing group.
“We knew Sandhurst is ‘the peak’ of the competition and would definitely bring the A-grade game again,” she said.
“My girls did too – they didn’t give up and kept fighting to the end.
“To be beaten by eight goals was hard – we don’t like losing – but unfortunately there has to be a loser and that was us.
“They really brought it to us and didn’t give up either and at the end of the day they played that little bit better and deserved the win.”
Holmes, who played in her fourth-consecutive grand final for Golden Square, but first as coach, nominated shooter Richards and Meg Gilbert as her side’s best on the day.
“Meg at both ends, she played wing attack and then she ended up in the defence end with me, which she hasn’t done in quite a few games, but didn’t miss a beat,” she said.
The Bulldogs coach also had praise for the other Meg, Sandhurst’s star best on court Williams.
“She is a gun – and always has a blinder (against us),” Holmes said.