IT BEGAN with a wave of unbridled excitement and anticipation at Tannery Lane on Good Friday.
But in the end the 2021 football-netball season in the AFL Central Victoria region became death by a thousand cuts that finally had its last rites read on Friday.
As the faint flicker of hope of a finals return finally flamed out, the demise of the 2021 season came in stark contrast to the extraordinary level of enthusiasm generated in the build-up to Good Friday when the Bendigo Football-Netball League clash between Strathfieldsaye and Sandhurst signaled the return of community football-netball to the region for the first time since 2019.
While junior players were fortunate to get a brief taste of football and netball last year, for most the entire 2020 season was ruined by the coronavirus pandemic.
So it came as no surprise when on April 2 a monster crowd that paid a gate of about $10,000 flocked to Tannery Lane for the tussle between the Storm and Dragons in the BFNL's long-awaited first game since the 2019 grand final 559 days earlier.
It was an atmosphere more akin to that of a final and seemingly the weather gods agreed that it was momentous to have footy-netball back, playing its part in the much-anticipated relaunch.
The temperature was a tick under 28 degrees when the ball was bounced for the senior game just after 2.30pm.
However, it could have been pouring rain and only seven degrees and the crowd still would have ventured to Tannery Lane such in droves was the appetite for the return of community football-netball from its hiatus.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and boy, didn't we miss the football and netball - and basketball, soccer, hockey, rugby, the list goes on - last year.
From an on-field perspective, fittingly the game more than lived up to the hype of the build-up, with Sandhurst unleashing a burst of six unanswered goals to come from 26 points down early in the last quarter to win 11.12 (78) to 8.19 (65).
The Dragons' triumph was stunning on two fronts.
To come from 26 points down in the last quarter against the reigning premier with two players off injured (Alex Wharton and Isaac Ruff) in weather conditions more akin to that of a cricket match than game of football was full of merit in itself.
But to do it at Tannery Lane where since 2012 the Storm have a remarkable 73-5 record added to the significance of the Dragons' win.
"The feeling right now is why you play football," an elated, but exhausted, Sandhurst co-captain Nick Stagg said post-match.
Later that evening the Good Friday spotlight turned to Scott Street and the rebooting of the Heathcote District league as White Hills hosted Elmore under lights.
While the senior game may not have matched what had unfolded at Tannery Lane earlier in the day - the highly-touted Demons belted the Bloods by 112 points in a result that would later become null and void - the A grade netball clash signaled a changing of the guard.
Elmore beat the perennial power Demons 59-41 to set the path on what would become an undefeated season.
Cruelly, though, the excitement and optimism after such an arduous 2020 without any competition that was felt at both Tannery Lane and Scott Street on Good Friday just over five months ago has been unable to be fulfilled.
While it had seemingly become inevitable in recent weeks this would be the outcome after regional Victoria again went into a lockdown on August 21 - right when the first of the region's finals series was set to get under way - the sense of finality that came across Thursday and Friday still hit like a bone jarring hip and shoulder.
In the space of 24 hours the Heathcote District, Loddon Valley, Central Victorian Women, Bendigo Juniors, Bendigo and North Central leagues all officially called off their 2021 finals series as the easing of regional Victorian restrictions only allow for training and no competition until at least September 23.
For football and netball, this is the time of the year to be most excited by - finals in September. You know the feeling: spring is here, the weather that little bit warmer, the days are that bit longer, the smell of freshly cut grass.
Had the season gone ahead as originally intended this weekend would have been an absolute feast - both the Loddon Valley and North Central league grand finals; Bendigo league preliminary final and Michelsen Medal; Bendigo Junior grand finals.
And most likely Lockington Bamawm-United (senior football) and Elmore (A grade netball) would have still been basking in the glory of winning Heathcote District league flags a week earlier. Instead, both have to settle for the tag as "minor premiers" for their undefeated body of work.
To have got to the cusp of the finals - albeit after a compromised home and away season - and not get the chance for the business end to play out is immensely disappointing and a massive blow to all those, on and off the field, who have put in a power of work to get leagues and teams back up and running again this year.
It's a hollow ending.
Glass half-full though is we can be grateful that although we didn't get full seasons completed, footballers and netballers - both senior and junior - were at least able to get back and do what they sorely missed last year and that's play the game they cherish and again have that social interaction that a sporting club provides.
Glass half-full though is we can be grateful that although we didn't get full seasons completed, footballers and netballers - both senior and junior - were at least able to get back and do what they sorely missed last year and that's play the game they cherish
Looking across the region's four senior competitions, they combined to play just 50 of a scheduled 70 home and away rounds - Bendigo (12), Heathcote District (14), Loddon Valley (13) and North Central (11).
League administrators and clubs have had to juggle enormous hurdles - always just that one snap lockdown announcement away from their season being thrown into further chaos.
As rounds fell by the wayside following the first weekend of called off competition on May 29, after which seasons hung on a knife-edge, and it became clear that finals would be impacted and season-ending dates would need to be altered, league administrators have spent hours pouring over all manner of "what if" scenarios.
We saw the Bendigo league buck with its tradition and revert from a top-five finals structure to a top-six, three-week system given the highly compromised nature of its home and away season.
The BFNL had also intended to push its grand final to the public holiday Friday on September 24 under an earlier roadmap released in June that didn't last long before it too needed further amendments as delays to the season mounted.
Coaching at the best of times can't be easy, let alone having to endure this stop-start season and the added burden that has come with it.
Whether it be having Melbourne-based players unavailable that severely hindered some teams playing stocks - see Kyneton, Gisborne, Donald, Colbinabbin and Heathcote to name a few - or having to keep players engaged in a season that may or may not go ahead without being able to train as a collective throughout lockdowns can't have been easy.
Sandhurst's Ashley Connick and Sea Lake Nandaly's Joel Donnan spring to mind given neither of their teams had played a game since July 10 through a combination of lockdowns and opposition forfeits, but up until Friday - two months later to the day - had to treat the season and their playing group like there was a flag still to be won.
But it must have been horribly draining for every coach at every level.
"The uncertainty around the season at times made it tough to get the guys up week in, week out, so I think it says something about the group we've got that we were able to perform the way we did throughout," is how LBU coach Brodie Collins described the challenge of the year.
There have been games played without crowds and much like when watching AFL matches on the TV in empty stadiums, they are a soulless experience.
Because our football-netball leagues are much, much more than just what happens on the football field and netball court of a weekend.
They are about communities and without communities there to support, it's just not the same.
Just ask Wycheproof-Narraport, which forfeited its last two games when the NCFL played without crowds.
"Football isn't just about going out and kicking the footy, there's the social side of it and with no crowds, that's obviously taken away," Demons' secretary Rory White said.
But those crowdless games were what was needed to try to push through for leagues to get a competition to 2021.
Sadly, that completion won't come to fruition and instead 2021 will go in the books as the year football and netball returned, but the full experience it offers that began with such a buzz on Good Friday couldn't be fully savoured.
But to everyone involved at league and club level, well done on your efforts this most difficult of year in trying to navigate a way through.
Here's hoping that this time next year we're all enjoying a September to remember.
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