Eltham has won through to its first grand final appearance since 2002 after rallying from behind in the Northern Football Netball League Division 2 second semi final against Lower Plenty.
Trailing for the opening three quarters, the Panthers managed to eventually get on top in the rain-affected match at Epping Recreation Reserve to win 6.8 (44) to 4.6 (30).
Eltham has been the team-to-beat throughout the division 2 home and away season, going unbeaten in its first 15 games, before faltering with two consecutive defeats.
But having booked the first place in this year’s premiership decider, the minor premier is on track to break a 16-year premiership drought.
The signs were ominous early in the second semi final however, as goals to Dale Nolan and Fabian Dorbolo helped Lower Plenty to a 12-point lead in the opening 10 minutes.
The Bears were on top in both the clearances and inside-50 counts, but could not turn it into scoreboard pressure, managing only another five behinds for the remainder of the term, before a late goal to Lewis Glasgow ensured the Panthers remained in the contest.
Lower Plenty conceded Glasgow goal on the back of two 50m penalties and it seemed to shift the momentum Eltham’s way as Tom Evans drew first blood in the second term to cut the Panthers’ deficit to three points.
With the heavy conditions making scoring hard to come by, the next goal didn’t come until the 22nd minute, with Leigh Gray kicking a goal against the run of play to extend Lower Plenty’s lead to nine points.
The third term saw a scrap for the first 18 minutes, with neither side registering a score. That was until a Gavan Connelly behind, which was followed swiftly by a Brendan O’Sullivan major, which cut the margin to two points – where it remained at three-quarter time.
Eltham coach Paul King instructed his side to kick the ball long and play direct football in the final term and his side did just that, with Thomas Carafa kicking a goal in the third minute to give his side its first lead of the match.
Thomas Blake quickly replied for Lower Plenty, booting his side’s first goal since the second term to snatch back the lead.
However, the Panthers were able to rally again and two majors from Michael Still gave them a handy buffer heading into time-on. From there they were able to keep out the Bears to hold on for a 14-point triumph.
Speaking after the win, King was pleased with his side’s response after a poor start.
“The first 15 minutes of the first quarter, we were asleep,” King said.
“After that we were in the game, but we weren’t playing the footy that we needed to on a wet day like today. We were still trying to over possess it a bit. I think in the last quarter we just kicked it long and got over the line.”
With his side now set to enjoy a week’s rest before the grand final, King said they would take confidence into the premiership decider.
“Whoever we come up against, we’re confident we can get the job done, so we’re looking forward to it,” he said.
Lower Plenty now heads to its second consecutive preliminary final where it will take on the winner of Sunday’s first semi between Banyule and Thomastown.
Final score: Eltham 6.8 (44) def Lower Plenty 4.6 (30)