Wangaratta Rovers passed the first pressure test of their maturity in charging away from Lavington on Sunday.
The Hawks held a 13-point lead at three-quarter time, but blasted six goals to three to claim a 13.12 (90) to 8.11 (59) win in front of a strong crowd of around 1350 to 'christen' the redeveloped Lavington Sportsground.
Rovers finished with the wooden spoon in 2018, but under first-year coach Daryn Cresswell roared back into finals contention, only to stumble with a lead in a handful of games.
"No question," now co-coach Cresswell said when quizzed if that was a game the club would have lost two years ago.
Quite remarkably, the upset snapped a 16-match, nine-year losing streak to the Panthers.
"I think in my time as coach (four years at Wodonga Raiders, now two at Rovers) we've only beaten 'Lavi' at 'Lavi' once," Cresswell offered.
The match was just what the league needed after the first game fizzer on Saturday, where an injury-belted Yarrawonga was smashed by Albury by 94 points.
Naturally given the teams hadn't played for more than 18 months due to COVID, the players made a number of handling and decision-making errors, but it was tight and a positive sign that the much-hyped competition will live up to expectation.
Rovers had built a 20-point lead late in the third term, but clever hands by Luke Garland and a neat finish by AB Mackinlay (three goals) reduced the margin to eight in the final quarter.
A soccer goal to Jayden Bear and Sam Allen's second major after Adam Butler was caught pushed the margin back out to 20 and then Aidan Johnson produced a miracle from the boundary to again cut the deficit.
However, the pace and poise of the exciting Jack Gerrish sealed the win when he swerved inside from near the boundary and kicked across his body.
"I was happy with the toughness we showed, they kept coming at us because they're a great side and we kept standing up," Cresswell suggested.
I was happy with the toughness we showed, they kept coming at us because they're a great side and we kept standing up.- Rovers' co-coach Daryn Cresswell
"It's always pleasing when an opponent comes at you and it's going to happen in big games, to the boys credit they were out on their legs, but got home."
With five minutes left, three Rovers were cramping within 15m of each other.
The ability of Gerrish (three goals) to seize the moment with his pace was crucial, while ruckman Shane Gaston was lauded for his efforts against Tim Hanna.
Sam Carpenter racked up possessions, while defender Tyson Hartwig was superb.
Panther Marty Brennan starred, while teenager Ben Ashley-Cooper impressed.
"We didn't play it offensively the style of footy we're used to playing," Lavington coach Simon Curtis said.
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"We weren't brave enough with our ball use and didn't run hard enough."
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