IT WAS not quite the fairy tale ending to his stint back at Bendigo City FC Will Keating was hoping for on Saturday night.
But what the 18-year-old missed out on in terms of a victory after City drew its Men's State League 5 West clash against Ballarat, he more than made up in pride.
Keating, one of the club's two acting captains in the absence of injured skipper Aidan Lane, better than most knows City has come a long way in a short time in its return to senior soccer this season for the first time since 2017.
As little as eight months ago, City's hopes of fielding a senior team were a mere dream.
But five weeks into a long season, the club is sitting third in its division with three wins and two draws.
Progress has been swift, even allowing for Saturday night's 2-2 draw in what was Keating's last this season and potentially beyond.
The quietly-spoken defensive midfielder is preparing for a new adventure by joining the army.
His army recruit training starts later this month.
Keating's hopes of bowing out with a win looked on track when, after a scoreless first half, Bendigo City shot to a 2-nil lead early in the second half.
But a resilient Ballarat, which ditched its defensive ethos, rallied to have the game quickly back on level terms before salvaging a 2-2 draw.
He might be leaving, but the result still cut deep for Keating, who opened the scoring for City by converting a penalty early in the second half.
"I'm pretty devastated we didn't get the win, but the last couple of months with these boys, I've just had a great time playing for this club," he said.
"I hope to be back after my stint in the army.
"This would definitely be the first choice I club I would go to. The boys have really gelled in such a short time."
Keating said the seeds for his Australian Defence Force gap year were sown during a school visit in 2020.
"(The army) came to school in Year 11 and I started looking at it and thought it would be a good opportunity for me to experience living alone and get a bit of independence and explore Australia," he said.
"I thought it would be a good opportunity to set myself up.
"The program I am doing is for 12-months, but they offer opportunities to extend if you want to join the Defence Force."
After hitting the training track for the first time as a group last October and being given the official go-ahead to compete in the Men's State League just before Christmas, things have moved fast for Bendigo City.
Keating, who had been playing National Premier Leagues soccer in Melbourne before committing to his hometown club, said he was proud of what City had achieved in its return to the senior ranks.
"This (against Ballarat) was probably our worst game for the season and if our worst game is a draw, it's pretty impressive. But it's still upsetting to draw," he said.
"I've loved every single game with these boys. They've put their heart and soul into this team to build it from the ground up.
"Hopefully the momentum can continue and the club can continue to grow."
From what he has seen through the pre-season and the first five games, Keating is certain Bendigo City can challenge for a title in its first season back.
"Barwon is definitely another title contender, but if we can come away with some points against them next week, or even a win, we'll definitely be in this title race and in line for promotion," he said.
I've loved every single game with these boys. They've put their heart and soul into this team to build it from the ground up.- Will Keating
Bendigo City coach Greg Thomas said while it was disappointing not to get a win for Keating in his final game, the youngster had a bright future ahead and everyone at the club wished him well.
"He's been massive for the club. His attitude on and off the park and what he brings to the whole group is magnificent," he said.
"We are going to miss him.
"For a young guy, he is a real leader and a real driver of the side.
"He's a great bloke and certainly had to replace.
"Whoever is coming in for Will is going to have big shoes to fill, but we all have to step up, we can't just let one person fill the role.
"We've got great depth and there is competition for spots, so I'm sure whoever comes in will do a job.
"But we expect everyone who plays to do a job."
READ MORE: Bendigo City to share leadership burden
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