Pennant Hills - 2015 Premier Division Premiers
Article & Photos by Michael Shillito
Grand Final day had come at last. The one day in September when history is made and the premiership is won and lost.
It was a Sunday Grand Final this season, for the first time since 2004. And the venue for this year’s decider was Henson Park, for the first time since 2008. And the same teams that competed in 2008, East Coast Eagles and Pennant Hills, would play each other again this time round.
Pennant Hills won that 2008 clash; but although they’d appeared in every finals series since, hadn’t added another premiership to their collection. They’d been in the last two Grand Finals, but were defeated in both.
Since that 2008 defeat, the Eagles won the next three premierships before joining the NEAFL in 2012. Although they continued to field a Premier Division team in the next three years, they were never anywhere near the finals.
But with no NEAFL team in 2015 but keeping the bulk of their NEAFL squad intact; for much of the 2015 season an East Coast premiership seemed inevitable. They let down their guard and ran out of legs in the opening round, but hadn’t lost since and finished minor premiers with an enormous percentage.
The two sides had met three times previously this season, twice during the home and away season and again during the Second Semi-Final; with the Eagles taking the game on all three occasions.
After a cloudy morning, the sun had emerged during the early afternoon, and by the time the teams lined up and sang the national anthem and then took their positions for the game to start, the sun was shining and conditions were great for footy.
The Eagles were the hottest of favourites, but they didn’t have everything their own way early. The Demons were contesting every possession early and denying the Eagles any consistent use of the ball. And reward for effort would come as the wind picked up a kick by Matt Carey and swung it between the big sticks to give the Demons the first goal of the afternoon.
The wind was inconsistent and swirling around, not really favouring either end. But after the Demons’ opening goal, the Eagles looked to be controlling the match as they scored the next three.
Scott Reed, who was best-on-ground for Pennant Hills in their 2008 flag but now represents East Coast, capitalised on a Demon error to land the Eagles’ first. Trent Stubbs snapped around the corner for their second. And a pinpoint pass by Stubbs found Jamie Vlatko. The game was barely 15 minutes old, and already the momentum looked to be running the Eagles’ way.
A late Demon fightback would keep them within striking distance, as Nick Hey took a diving mark 30 metres from home and then Tom Edmonds snuck one through from a tight angle. Suddenly the margin was back to within a kick; which would remain intact through to quarter time with the Eagles holding a two-point lead.
Unexpectedly, the Demons would take the lead in the second term and hold it through to half time. A clever snap over the shoulder by Luke Bilbe would see the lead change hands, before James Dunn would waste little time in adding another. And at the 16 minute mark, Theo Moraitis stood tall in a pack and pulled down a mark within kicking distance. Putting the goal through, the Demons were 16 points ahead.
A shock result was a possibility, and the crowd was in voice. There was plenty to entertain the crowd, with a DJ pumping out the tunes after every goal and a bouncy castle on the scoreboard hill for the kids. But the football action was holding everyone’s attention.
The Eagles needed a goal to stop the Demons’ run, and got one as Eugene Kreuger went long and found Jamie Vlatko 15 metres out.
Henson Park is not far from the airport, and planes often fly overhead. But the next flying object to be seen in the sky overhead was not a bird or a plane, not even Superman; but a speckie from Andrew McConnell on the Eagles’ forward line. Making no mistake with the kick after pulling down the mark, McConnell cut the margin to within a kick.
The Demons were leading by three points at half time; and the Eagles were left in no doubt that they had a fight on their hands. Frustration boiled over as the half-time siren sounded, and some push and shove between the two sides happened before they returned to the rooms.
Into the premiership quarter, and it was the Eagles’ turn to lift. Around the ground, the possessions began to flow and the ball moved forward with regularity. But shot after shot sailed wide, some going through for behinds while even more would miss the sticks completely. It took 18 minutes before a goal was scored, but finally Jack Dimery marked strongly and kicked to put the Eagles in front and send the Eagle contingent nearby with the Eagles Nest banner into full voice.
Players who had been quiet in the second quarter had come to life. The Eagles had runners, and players able to get away from opponents to create options. The defence was magnificent, holding the Demons scoreless for the quarter. At the other end, the scoreboard was ticking over, but inaccurately as the Eagles scored 1.6 for the quarter.
But the deficit had been turned into a lead. The Demons had been kept quiet, and Ranga Ediriwickrama had lashed out and been sentenced to a stint in the sin bin. The Eagles should have been more than nine points ahead, but momentum was running their way and it looked only a matter of time before the floodgates would open.
But what happened in the final quarter was extraordinary. Not even the staunchest Pennant Hills optimist could possibly have imagined how the last quarter would unfold.
First goal in the final quarter could have been crucial, and Scott Pierce had a chance to open the scoring for the Eagles in the final term but failed to make the distance. And instead it would be the Demons who would score first in the final term, as James Dunn found himself the recipient of a free kick in the goalsquare.
The Pennant Hills support was moving to behind the goals at the scoreboard end, and they had plenty of cause to make some noise as Moraitis fed the ball to a leading Matt Carey, who went back and kicked truly to give the Demons the lead. It had taken 12 minutes into the final term, and the lead had changed hands again.
The Demons had their tails up, and the scent of a premiership was in their nostrils. Having missed out at the last hurdle in the last two seasons, they weren’t going to miss out again if they could help it. And when Damian Dell’Aquila sharked a ball-up and snapped truly, the Demons found some breathing space.
Suddenly the Demons were controlling the game, and scoring was getting easier. Dell’Aquila scored his second a couple of minutes later; and when Tom Edmonds threaded the needle from an impossible angle, the Demons were 21 points ahead.
The floodgates had opened Pennant Hills’ way, and goals were coming easily. Theo Moraitis pulled down a strong mark and kicked another. Jamie Vlatko got a goal back for the Eagles, their only score in the final quarter; but by then it was too little too late. And in the dying minutes of the game, Damian Dell’Aquila kicked his third and Ranga Ediriwickrama put the icing on the cake. And then the siren sounded, with the Demons having a 35-point win.
In the moments after a Grand Final, emotions are in stark contrast. Demon ecstacy and Eagle agony.
Pennant Hills players, volunteers and supporters embrace in jubilation. All the work that begins in pre-season, and the perseverance through the long months of the season, have culminated in this moment. Everyone in the club is a part of the party.
Just metres away physically, but a galaxy away spiritually, Eagle players feel the empty feeling of defeat. For some, even standing up is beyond them. Nothing can comfort them in this moment. This loss hurts a lot, as they were so widely expected to win.
Damian Dell’Aquila was awarded the Podbury Medal as best on ground in the Grand Final; while Ranga Ediriwickrama and Theo Moraitis also featured prominently for the Demons. But it was a solid team effort by the Demons, with all 22 in the team playing their roles magnificently.
Blake Anderson, Stuart Turner and Andrew McConnell were East Coast’s best. But this was not the way the Eagles were planning to finish their season. They had a good season, a star-studded lineup that carried all before them between the first and last games. Over the course of the season, they were the benchmark.
But football does not honour the team that wins the most games in a season. It honours the team that wins the last game in a season.
And that team is Pennant Hills. They may not have the star power of the Eagles, but they still have some very handy players. And coach Chris Yard moulded them into a team that was capable of not just matching it with the Eagles but with the belief that they could surpass them. Which they did so emphatically during that final quarter.
The Demons’ celebrations have only just begun. Such a stunning final quarter will be the catalyst for a very long party for the boys in red and blue. The pain of their 2013 and 2014 Grand Final defeats is gone, replaced by premiership jubilation.