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    IN FRONT: Natimuk United goal defence Jo Taylor grabs the ball ahead of Harrow-Balmoral’s Samantha Crick.

Natimuk and Laharum netballers in grand final rematch

By Colin MacGillivray

After a year of waiting, Horsham District netball fans will get a grand final rematch for the ages.

Two-time defending premier Natimuk United has its sights set on an historic third flag in succession but standing in the way will be the team it vanquished in last year’s premiership decider – Laharum.

The Demons have famously been on the receiving end of some heart-stopping losses to the Ewes in recent seasons, including a five-goal loss in the 2018 grand final.

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But if ever there was a golden opportunity for Laharum to dethrone the reigning premiers, this is it.

The Demons put a longstanding hoodoo to rest by defeating Natimuk United in the second semi-final, earning a week off and a spot in the grand final.

The Ewes were forced to slug it out with Harrow-Balmoral, another excellent team in its own right, in Saturday’s preliminary final.

The Ewes started slowly in blustery conditions, trailing the Roos 10-5 at quarter time.

It looked as if the team’s premiership defence might be coming to an end when coach Cheryl Sudholz left the court early in the second quarter with a balky knee, but the Ewes found a way to rally.

Jo Taylor and Casey Vanstan, playing in the defensive goal ring, used their guile, length and the tricky conditions to create numerous turnovers, which goalie Shannon Couch began converting at the other end.

Ebony Rintoule replaced Sudholz on the court and did not miss a beat at wing defence, while Danielle Fleay shifted to Sudholz’s position of goal attack.

Harrow-Balmoral goal shooter Amy Lewis converted at a high rate but simply had few opportunities as the Ewes clicked into high gear.

The team had turned a five-goal deficit into a one-goal advantage by half time and continued to roll after the break.

The Roos finally got the play back on their terms in patches of the last quarter, but it was too little, too late, as Natimuk United finished with a 37-34 win.

Harrow-Balmoral coach Ebonie Salter said her team was disappointed to lose, but praised the unflappable commitment of the Ewes.

“We probably relaxed a bit after we went into quarter time with the lead,” she said.

“Cheryl came off the court and to their credit they really lifted.

“As they always do, they kept utilising their centres. We threw away a few of ours, the momentum swung and they capitalised.”

Sudholz said she would leave no stone unturned in her effort to return in time for the grand final.

“I’m doing everything I can to try and get out there,” she said.

“The past couple of weeks I’ve been dealing with tight muscles in my calf and knee.

“It hasn’t just been this week, but I’m trying everything to get it right.”

Laharum co-coach Caitlin Story said regardless of whether Sudholz was coaching from the court or the sidelines, the Ewes would present a formidable challenge.

“I went and watched on Saturday and when she did come off, I don’t think their team changed too much,” she said.

“I reckon the player who came on for her actually did quite a good job.

“We’ll prepare the same whether it’s her or whether it’s Danielle at wing attack, because they’re pretty similar players, it’s just that Cheryl has a bit more experience.”

With the league’s top two goal shooters – Couch for the Ewes and Story for the Rams – at either end of the court and excellent conditions forecast, the game will likely be won and lost in the middle of the court.

Sudholz could be a big loss for the Ewes, but Rintoule proved a more than handy replacement at the weekend, while Michelle Trigg and Fleay add experience and zip.

Zandria Malone will have a big job at centre for Laharum, while wing attack Erin Mellington will be tasked with feeding the ball to Story and Maddie Iredell in goals.

Story said the biggest hurdles for her team would be mental ones.

“We’ll just focus on what’s next in the play and we don’t worry about what the umpire calls because we can’t do anything about that,” she said.

“We’ve tried really hard to work on that all season because I feel like that’s been our downfall mentally.

“We feel like it’s our turn to get it, so we’re going to give it everything we’ve got and hopefully come away with a win.”

Only time will tell who emerges victorious, but one thing is certain: spectators at Horsham City Oval on Saturday are in for a treat.

The entire September 11, 2019 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!