FROM the moment Brian Durbidge greeted Sam Caruso with a shove at the opening bounce, you just knew things were going to be interesting.
This was one of the games of the season.
Wangaratta Rovers booked themselves a spot in Sunday’s knockout semi-final against Lavington with a thrilling nine-point win over North Albury yesterday.
Although the Hawks led at every change, and never trailed after they first claimed the lead at the four-minute-mark of the opening quarter, the game was still alive until the dying moments.
The Hoppers refused to give in.
Rovers charged to a healthy 35-point lead, early in the second term, but had that buffer cut to just 17 points in a matter of minutes as Jethro Calma-Holt, Ash Sibraa and Adam Prior kicked a flurry of goals.
Again, the Hawks found their composure, and the ever lively Daniel McCullough helped steady the ship with the fourth of his first-half goals.
Ash Pollard and John Conroy followed suit, and all of a sudden the Hawks were back in a seemingly match-winning position.
But the Hoppers hit back, again.
They booted four goals in the final four minutes of the first half and went in to the rooms with a single figure deficit and their confidence sky high.
Jarrah Maksymow kicked the first, Durbidge the second and Sibraa the third. Then Maksymow again.
The livewire forward snapped one of the goals of the season, making a mockery of physics in the process.
Ryan Stone gave the Hawks the first blow of the second half but Durbidge’s third and another goal from Prior cut the margin to just four points.
It was game on, again.
Rovers’ young gun Alex Marklew responded with his third goal of the game, in typically brilliant fashion, before the Hawks rammed home three more to hold a 28-point buffer at the final change.
Surely the Hoppers couldn’t come back a fourth time?
Calma-Holt and Maksymow ensured the final term started in positive fashion, kicking two goals in the opening minutes, before McCullough again hit the scoreboard when it was needed.
His five goals all came at crucial times for the Hawks.
Rising star Jordan Harrington kept North Albury in it with a quick reply but when Josh Senior gifted Sam Caruso the easiest of goals dead in front minutes later, the Hawks seemed safe.
But Harrington booted another and Doug Strang medallist Prior found his third.
But time ultimately proved North Albury’s enemy and the Hawks hung on for one of their most hard-earned victories of the season.
Sean O’Keeffe starred for the winners, while Brandon Ryan’s influence in turning things around for the Hoppers could not be understated.
Wangaratta Rovers coach Mick Caruso rued his side’s inconsistency.
He said their inability to hold control of a match, once they had gained it, was a continued problem.
“It seems to be a curse on us,” he said.
“It’s something we’ve got to improve on.”
While disappointed with the outcome of yesterday’s final, North Albury coach Jason Akermanis couldn’t help but label this season a success for last year’s wooden spooner.
“With the talent we’ve got and how we’ve stuck to the task it’s been enormous,” the first-year coach said.
“They’ve all improved and that’s the main thing. They’ve been unwavering and that’s all you can ask for.
“Last to fifth, yep, that’s a success.”