THE 2019 BFNL A-grade netball finals series is upon us, with many coaches, players, officials and supporters alike declaring it the most open in years.
A relatively even home and away season ended with just one win separating the top two teams - Sandhurst and Gisborne - with a thriller at Dower Park last Saturday needed to split Kangaroo Flat and Eaglehawk in the battle for third spot, after the Roos and Hawks played out a draw earlier in the season.
The season also heralded the emergence of a new contender in South Bendigo, which will be breaking a more than 15-year finals drought, when it clashes with Eaglehawk on Sunday.
The Bendigo Advertiser asked a representative from all five finals teams to put themselves in the shoes of a rival club and talk up their premiership chances.
Here's what they said.
Ladder position: First
Win-loss record: 14-2
Record v finalists: 6-2 (defeated Kangaroo Flat 43-38; defeated South Bendigo 62-28; defeated Eaglehawk 67-43; lost to Gisborne 38-53; lost to Kangaroo Flat 48-50; defeated South Bendigo 67-49; defeated Eaglehawk 60-46; defeated Gisborne 55-43).
Bogey team: If any, Kangaroo Flat. The Roos are one of only two teams with a win against the reigning premiers this season and were beaten by only five goals in their other encounter in round one. Those results followed a draw and a four-goal win to the Dragons in their two minor round contests in 2018.
Two key players (as nominated by opposition): Meg Williams and Bec Smith.
What the opposition thinks: "Sandhurst will go into this year's finals series as favourites and have earned the first week off. They have strength and depth in every position as well as that all important finals experience on the big stage. Meg Williams in wing attack is a standout and sets up many of the Dragons attack plays with her speed and precision feeding to the goalers. Bec Smith in goal shooter is also a key and both these players need to be shut down if Sandhurst is to be denied their third A-grade premiership in a row. I believe the competition is a lot more even this year and any of the top five teams on their day could worry the Dragons."
Summary: Chasing a three-peat of A-grade flags (as well as in 17-and-under and B-grade), Sandhurst deserves to start the finals series as favourites. The Dragons sent a timely reminder of their premiership ambitions with a strong 12-goal win over Gisborne in a top-two clash earlier this month. The only team with wins over all four of its finals rivals, Sandhurst possesses the perfect blend of experienced hands and talented youth, and boasts strength and class in all areas of the court.
Other teams in finals: A-reserve, B-grade, B-reserve, 17-and-under.
Ladder position: Second
Win-loss record: 13-3
Record v finalists: 5-3 (defeated Kangaroo Flat 44-43; defeated South Bendigo 58-38; lost to Eaglehawk 47-48; defeated Sandhurst 53-38; defeated Kangaroo Flat 39-35; defeated South Bendigo 52-48; lost to Eaglehawk 36-42; lost to Sandhurst 43-55.
Bogey team: Eaglehawk. The Bulldogs have been unable to beat the Hawks in two attempts this season, their latest loss coming earlier this month by six goals at Gardiner Reserve. The Hawks won the teams' earlier season contest by one goal.
Two key players (as nominated by opposition): Maddy Stewart and Tiana Newman.
What the opposition thinks: "Gisborne to me are a really defensive side. When I think about really good defending teams, they are the team that stand out for me. We would obviously love to be in a grand final, but Gisborne is certainly a team deserving of being there. Their attacking style for mine is very defensive too, which is hard to play against, and I think they have consistency all over the court. Maddy Stewart is a gun - I'd love playing with her rather than against her. And Tiana is just that steady-head in the midcourt."
Summary: While avenging last season's grand final loss to Sandhurst will no doubt be on the minds of Gisborne players, they won't be focusing any further than Saturday night's qualifying final against Kangaroo Flat. The Bulldogs have beaten the Roos twice this season, but by an average margin of just 2.5 goals, indicating things will again be tight. Consecutive losses to Eaglehawk and Sandhurst won't have hurt their standing as a genuine premiership contender, especially given the Bulldogs are one of only two sides to have beaten the reigning premiers.
Other teams in finals: A-reserve, B-grade, B-reserve, 17-and-under.
Ladder position: Third
Win-loss record: 12-3-1
Record v finalists: 4-3-1 (lost to Sandhurst 38-43; lost to Gisborne 43-44; defeated South Bendigo 64-31; drew with Eaglehawk 49-49; defeated Sandhurst 50-48; lost to Gisborne 35-39; defeated South Bendigo 42-30; defeated Eaglehawk 40-38.
Bogey side: Gisborne. The Bulldogs are the only side Kangaroo Flat has not beaten this season, albeit the margins have been small (one and four goals). The Roos did not beat the Bulldogs in two matches in 2018 either, and lost two of three, including a final, against Gisborne in 2017.
Two key players (as nominated by opposition): Julia Clarke and Kate Burton.
What the opposition thinks: "Kangaroo Flat are a very tough team, physically, and I think they have some unfinished business from last year. They have recruited well and are in great form. They've just knocked off Eaglehawk and they knocked off Sandhurst as well. They have the potential and the depth and they are very well coached by Jayden (Cowling). Key players .... Basing it on our games, their goal attack Julia Clarke shot amazing - I don't think she missed and really stood out. And Kate Burton as a defender was massive. She's smart, and tough to play on."
Summary: While Kangaroo Flat's early season win-loss record against its finals rivals was not overly flattering at one win, one draw and two losses, the Roos certainly gained momentum - and plenty of it - in the second half of the season. The Roos defeated Sandhurst, South Bendigo and Eaglehawk in the final nine rounds on the way to clinching the double chance. Third spot was the Roos' to lose last weekend, before they overcame a brave Eaglehawk by two goals in a major test of their finals mettle, setting them up for a serious crack at a first premiership since 2016 and with the double chance.
Other teams in finals: A-reserve, B-grade, B-reserve.
Ladder position: Fourth
Win-loss record: 10-3-3
Record v finalists: 2-3-3 (drew with South Bendigo 48-48; lost to Sandhurst 43-67; defeated Gisborne 48-47; drew with Kangaroo Flat 49-49; drew with Eaglehawk 24-24 (match abandoned); lost to Sandhurst 46-60; defeated Gisborne 42-36; lost to Kangaroo Flat 38-40.
Bogey side: South Bendigo. The Hawks have a pair of draws to show from its two matches against the Bloods this season and now must face the finals newcomer in a knock-out elimination final.
Two key players (as nominated by opposition): Abbey and Ashley Ryan, with honourable mention to Allira Holmes
What the opposition thinks: "They are a very dangerous side and when they are all firing they are even harder to beat. When you look at the connection between Abbey and Ash, you can't get more connected than being sisters, they just know each other's games so well. When they fire they can be hard to stop. They also have Allira in the back end, who is so consistent as well. She will play a key part this week in stopping Chloe Langley. They've beaten Gisborne twice - they can definitely win it all."
Summary: Eaglehawk will be ruing a trio of drawn matches - one in an abandoned match against South Bendigo, its first-up finals opponent. Wins in two of them could well have delivered the Hawks the double chance. That said, two wins over Gisborne this season and an early season draw against Kangaroo Flat (and a narrow loss last Saturday) provide confidence the Hawks can progress deep into the finals, provided they get past South Bendigo this Sunday. The Hawks, who are lining up for their third consecutive finals series, will be chasing their first finals victory since their 2012 premiership triumph.
Other teams in finals: A-reserve, B-reserve, 17-and-under.
Ladder position: Fifth
Win-loss record: 7-2-7
Record v finalists: 0-6-2 (drew with Eaglehawk 48-48; lost to Sandhurst (28-62); lost to Gisborne 38-58; lost to Kangaroo Flat (31-64); drew with Eaglehawk 24-24 (match abandoned); lost to Sandhurst 49-67; lost to Gisborne 48-52; lost to Kangaroo Flat 30-42.
Bogey side: Sandhurst. The Bloods are yet to defeat any of the top three and have drawn twice against Eaglehawk. Their biggest losses this season have come against the Dragons. Fortunately for South Bendigo - and much needs to happen before then - the Bloods cannot meet the Dragons until at least preliminary final weekend.
Two key players (as nominated by opposition): Chloe Adams and Chloe Langley.
What the opposition thinks: "They've shown they can really take it up to Eaglehawk this season with their draws and that's who they play first up. Once they get their momentum going, they are very hard to stop in attack. They are a team you probably don't want to come up against with them being the under-dogs, and I'm sure they're happy to have that under-dogs label. Key players? I'd go down both ends for them, with Chloe Langley in goals. Once she is on, she doesn't really miss. And Chloe Adams is outstanding in defence."
Summary: Surprise packets? Maybe. An unknown quantity? Definitely. The Bloods are lining up for their first A-grade finals series in at least 15 years. That scenario alone should fill them with plenty of motivation and confidence to make the most of the opportunity. After a pair of draws this season against Eaglehawk, South Bendigo gets the finals opponent its most comfortable with first-up and appears more than capable of pulling off an upset.
Other teams in finals: A-reserve, B-grade, 17-and-under.
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