Former Hawthorn premiership player Jordan Lewis said a number of years ago that preliminary finals are almost the hardest games to win, given a grand final berth is on the line. And the Lavington Football Club couldn't argue with that. From 2011 to 2014, the Panthers lost three prelims by a combined margin of five points. To make it worse, the club led all three at three quarter-time by around two goals. Even as a neutral observer, it was hard to watch as the club tried so hard, but couldn't win the big games. In our weekly series over what would have been the O and M's finals, but for COVID-19, we look back at Lavington's gut-wrenching and 'cursed' run, which led to some opponents branding them 'chokers'.
Yarrawonga jumped out to a three-goal lead at quarter-time in the penultimate Ovens and Murray League game of 2011 at Wodonga Raiders' Birallee Park.
However, Lavington seized control with the Pigeons booting only another three to three-quarter time as the Panthers carried a two-goal break into the final quarter.
The Pigeons had made the two previous grand finals, falling to juggernaut Albury.
When the Panthers kicked the first couple of goals, the match looked over.
"We thought we were a pretty good chance of making the grand final, but I think Craig Ednie turned it on, I don't think he touched it all day but he destroyed us," Lavingon's Tom Hargreave said.
And it wasn't just The Little Master the Panthers had to deal with. It was nature, perhaps kick-starting the 'hoodoo' theory the club battled for years.
"It was a massive howling wind going the one direction in the game and then in the last quarter (when we would have had it), it stopped," Hargreave said.
The Pigeons rattled on six goals to steal a 13.14 (92) to 13.11 (89) win with powerhouse forward Marcus McMillan booting four goals.
"I didn't understand the significance of it, being so young," the then 17-year-old schoolboy said.
"It was Tim Sanson's last game, so there were a few tears in the change rooms."
Sanson had been in charge a club record 14 seasons, claiming two flags.
He was a unique character, seemingly impervious to criticism and unaffected by what people thought of him.
He also wasn't an emotional person, but the end of era moved even Sanson.
"I think he did shed a few tears, I think it was a bit of disbelief that we choked that bad," Hargreave admitted.
The word choke is one of the most despised in sport. With some players, at all levels, you almost feel they would take more offence about being labelled a choker than bagging their parentage.
But Hargreave is also as honest as they come and doesn't hide away from the chokers tag.
"Oh definitely, there's no doubt about that, the game was there to be won and we lost it," he said candidly.
Two years later, Albury was battling to make a fifth straight grand final.
The Tigers had blitzed Lavington in the second quarter, racing to a 20-point lead.
However, the Panthers kept Albury scoreless in the third term and carried a 13-point break into the final quarter.
But the Tigers were able to keep the Panthers to just two majors, while landing five themselves to sneak home.
"We definitely blew that one," Hargreave offered.
"Personally, I remember marking a ball with maybe a minute to go, I turned around and had a shot and hit the post.
"I can just remember smashing the ground with my mouthguard, I was beside myself."
What hurt so much about this loss was Lavington had nine more scoring shots, but lost by a point - 12.6 (78) to 10.17 (77).
First-year player Adam Flagg missed a shot in the final seconds.
"'Flaggy' missed a sitter, so you can blame him," Hargreave laughed, although that wasn't the case after the clash at Norm Minns Oval.
"We were all shattered mate, there were a few tears after that one too I think."
The next year, there was no hiding the chokers tag as one opponent continued to torment the Panthers.
"I can remember 'Fev' (Yarrawonga forward Brendan Fevola) vividly running past our huddle all the time, saying, 'we choked, we're chokers'," Hargreave said.
"I think it got a bit fiery at three-quarter time, the two huddles had a few words and a few spectators were a bit fired up too, it was another cracking contest."
The Panthers piled on six goals in the second stanza to rack up a 27-point lead.
Yarrawonga reduced it to 14 points heading into the final term and, painfully for the Panthers, it was Fevola who broke their hearts with a six-goal haul in the 12.16 (88) to 13.9 (87) thriller.
Lavington's Adam Prior also kicked six majors, but it was 'Fev' and best on ground Ednie, again, who shattered the Panthers' dreams of a first grand final in six years.
Hargreave, John Hunt, Adam Butler and Luke Garland played in all three games and the hurt only continued in the next two years with the Panthers losing successive grand finals to Albury, which admittedly was red-hot favourities.
"For the blokes who went through all those losses, it drove us like crazy, we wanted it bad," Hargreave said.
IN OTHER NEWS:
It might have taken nearly a decade, but Hargreave, Garland and Butler were finally able to snare the league's greatest prize last year when the Panthers stunned favourites Wangaratta by 34 points in one of the bigger upsets in recent years.
Hunt, unfortunately, was forced to miss the game with a shoulder injury, allowing Butler to play his first game in 99 days after battling hamstring issues since mid-June.