By Nick Creely
“I think everyone needs to remember that Doveton did it pretty tough last year with no wins and 16 losses, so when you have a year like this year, playing a qualifying final, it was really important for everyone to enjoy the occasion.”
The Doves, who are one of the feel-good stories of the season after going through the final year of the SEFNL winless in a dark chapter in the club’s history, continue to gather momentum, and will be a side to keep an eye on as the finals series continues to play out over the next three weeks.
But these Doves – who bleed for the jumper – understand just how much football is left to play out and just what is on the end of line if they can defy all others and hold the cup aloft in three weeks’ time.
Down at Beaconsfield’s picturesque Holm Park on Sunday, the gritty Doves are just one win away from a grand final after downing Monbulk in sunny, and then torrential conditions in the AFL Outer East Division 1 qualifying final, 8.12 (60) to 7.3 (45).
It was all the Hawks in the first half, surging out to a 21-point lead at quarter time, but the Doves stuck in, pegging that deficit to just a straight kick at the major break as the weather started to well and truly settle in.
The Doves managed to get the jump as the rain tumbled in the third term, with youngster Max Sheppard in particular handling the conditions with ease and midfielder Mitch Cotter completely dominating the stoppages on his way to a mountain of the football.
With the game well and truly in the balance with a quarter to play, and the Doves with a two-goal lead early in the last, a Hawk tackle slipped high and Daniel Charles’ side made the most of the chance to take their lead out to three goals, before the Hawks began to try and defy the conditions and move the ball quickly.
Despite the Hawks breathing some form of life into the contest with a reply 10 minutes later, Sheppard sealed the deal with his second goal, snapping one after a free kick advantage to send the Doves into a semi-final showdown with Pakenham, a side they are yet to defeat this season.
Director of football Martin Stillman praised the group for its ability to adapt to the conditions late in the game and find that much needed buffer after tightening up defensively after leaking five first quarter goals.
“Any time you can go into the third quarter huddle in front, it’s pretty simple – you win the last quarter, you win the game,” he said.
“We were confident, we kept Monbulk to just two points in the second and third quarters, and worked really hard to get that 13-point lead, and when the rain came in, it was difficult to score, so it was certainly advantageous for us.
“A 13-point lead is almost double in that rain, so it was great for us.”
Young star Mitch Cotter – who was the SEFNL MVP for Doveton last year in a winless side – has returned to the club with a bang after a stint at Noble Park, relishing the wet conditions to be a dominant force against the Hawks, while Sean Kelleher, Harley Primrose and Daniel Zajac were all excellent.
“Mitch has been terrific coming back to the club, he’s such a competitor, a real bull, and so combative,” Stillman said.
“He’s a terrific player, and when the ball’s on the ground, in the clinches, that’s what he loves –but he’s just as valuable in the dry, and he played a terrific game.”
With the Doves only potentially one game away from a breakthrough grand final appearance, an incredible feat for a club that struggled at times for numbers last year, Stillman said the group is embracing what’s yet to come, believing the sky is the limit if they continue to believe.
“Daniel Charles said to the players this week at training and pre-game to embrace it, and enjoy it, and this is what we play for, finals football,” he said.
“We had 20 per cent chance to win the premiership coming into the weekend and with Mount Evelyn dropping out, the way I see it, it’s increased to 33 per cent.
“Whoever wins out of Pakenham and Doveton makes the grand final, and it goes to 50 per cent, so in a sense it’s a numbers game.
“But for us we want to enjoy our footy, and not be overawed by the occasion and just enjoy it.”
Stillman said that the Doves will relish the challenge of Ash Green’s Lions – fresh off a week off – and will not take a backwards step despite not being able to topple them in three attempts this season.
“They’re rightfully premiership favorites, and each time we play them we learn a lot, and so do they about us, but they’re a well-oiled machine, well structured, and have a potent forward line and terrific midfield,” he said.
“They’re terrific on every line, and any quality team that you play, if you drop off in intensity and work rate for five minutes, they’ll threaten, so we need 100 per cent commitment.
“We’re confident, if you don’t go in confident, so we go into the game expecting to put in a good performance, and we believe our best footy is as good as anyone’s.
“Everyone in the competition will pick Pakenham, and everyone did with Monbulk on the weekend, and that’s fine, it’s in our DNA, we’re always underdogs and battlers, so we’ll take that mantle and front up against the powerhouse Lions.”