Hockey boy wonders are champions
GRAFTON'S boys' under-17 hockey side snatched a thrilling 3-2 second extra-time victory over New England to be crowned second division champions at the Hockey NSW State Championships in Orange.
The squad had to overcome a 12-hour journey, a suspension to A key player and the mental scars stemming from last year's final disappointment, to run through the tournament undefeated and claim the major prize.
The victory also created a slice of history for the Grafton hockey community with all three junior age groups (under-13s, 15s and 17s) to compete in division one for the first time.
The squad's monumental achievement was also recognised by state selectors, with Mitchell Lollback, Tim Anderson (under-18s) and Mitchell Thomas (under-16s) awarded State squad spots for their outstanding performances.
Coach Ray Loy said the boys played some 'tremendous hockey' and he commended the squad's 'never-say-die' attitude.
“They showed tremendous character throughout the tournament to come back when they needed to,” he said.
“They played some absolutely tremendous hockey along the way ... I couldn't be happier with the boys' performance.”
In a drama-charged passage to the final, New England was the first on the chopping block, with a Tim Anderson penalty stroke giving Grafton an early lead before New England scored just before halftime.
New England took the lead in the second stanza and had the best of the action before a piece of individual Lollback brilliance from a penalty corner helped Grafton level the scores.
A deflected Nic Weller shot made it 3-2 before Liam Ellis sealed a 4-2 victory.
Central Coast was next in line and Grafton dominated the game to win 4-0 with a solo effort from Anderson the highlight of the match.
Controversy erupted at the end of the match when the Central Coast coach lodged a complaint against Mitchell Thomas for alleged abusive language.
At the judiciary hearing, Thomas denied the allegation but was found guilty and received a two-game suspension, which was later reduced to a match.
“Being 17-year-old boys it was a bit physical,” under-17 team manager Jeff Thomas said.
“(But) there weren't too many yellows and the games weren't dirty ... it was just a rush of blood.”
The squad took the suspension in its stride and convincingly outplayed Penrith 3-0 in the next match.
The game featured two stunning strikes, with Liam Ellis and Laurie Urquhart combining for a brilliant team goal before Lollback, on an acute angle, cracked a screamer reverse tomahawk shot into the top of the net.
In the semi-final against Sydney, Grafton increased its tempo and intensity and had the better of the play only to be continually denied by the brilliant 'keeper, Chris Highman.
Not to be outdone, Grafton 'keeper Aidan Cameron made sure the ball stayed clear of his goal, but with Andrew Loy and Lollback both receiving cards, Sydney found the back of the net with only 10 minutes to go.
Things were looking desperate until the returning Lollback somehow scrambled a goal and put Grafton, having finished first in its pool, through to the final.
The final was a tough rematch against New England, which surprised Goulburn in the other semi.
Grafton dominated the early period with goals in the eighth and ninth minutes to Ellis and Ryan Cameron.
New England scored its first shortly afterwards, but Grafton maintained its advantage to head into halftime with a 2-1 advantage.
New England started the quicker of the two teams in the second half and was rewarded with a goal to tie things up. Both teams failed to capitalise on several scoring chances in the remaining 20 minutes and regular time ended in a stalemate.
Extra-time failed to deliver a victor and the second extra-time was just as fruitless until, two minutes before penalties, Lollback ran the ball into the circle, drew the goalkeeper and passed to Cameron who swept the ball into the net, sparking scenes of jubilation.
“The boys were ecstatic and in good spirits ... just rapt, very happy,” Thomas said.