The Hockey SA State Country Championships were held over the weekend on Saturday and Sunday, May 4 and 5, at The Pines Stadium in Adelaide. Port Pirie women were represented by a talented group of fourteen players who faced a rigorous schedule, with six 40 minute games programmed over the two days against five other South Australian regional teams.
Last year's championship saw Port Pirie place second after a heartbreaking albeit breathtaking penalty shootout defeat to the Barossa Valley, after a grueling extra time golden goal period remained scoreless.
Nine of the players from last year returned this time around in an attempt to take the extra step and become the 2019 champions.
The first match of the championships had Port Pirie pitched against the Riverland team. A nervous and unrehearsed eleven took their places as the umpires signaled the start of the match, but settled quickly to take control over the game.
With goals to both Emily Howard and Katelyn Guy capping off a good overall team performance, a 2-1 victory was secured and the first three points of the campaign were entered onto the leader-board.
Finding herself in the right place would be the theme for Emily Howard's weekend as she scored her second goal to match Sean Blieschke's effort against the Yorke Peninsula outfit.
A 2-1 final scoreline is not a true reflection of the game, as the Port Pirie side remained in control for much of the match and only good goalkeeping from the Yorke Peninsula keeper kept her team in contention to the end.
The third round produced a rematch of last year's grand final against Barossa Valley. With six points already won by the Port Pirie team, victory in this game would all but secure a finals position.
Goalkeeper Mikala Colyer saw the most action of her first three games, as Barossa Valley found themselves with many good goal shots saved by the young defender, however the Port Pirie team stayed resolute posting their first clean sheet, and with midfield sensation Darcy Blieschke finding a path past the opposition keeper, another three points were added to the tally.
At the end of day one, Port Pirie and Port Lincoln sat equal on nine points. This added some spice for the following day as these two teams were scheduled to compete in the next fixture, and looked the most likely to represent in the final.
It was obvious from the outset that the Port Lincoln women meant business. A well organized unit took to the field and proved a handful from the outset. The Port Lincoln team's tactics found the Port Pirie midfield out of position and struggling to cope with regular player rotations. With quality midfielder Danica Manfield out for this match, the defense seemed outnumbered in the first half, and only a solid scramble from the team's young players matched with some stout defending from team captain Kathryn Johnson and some superstar magic from defenders Ilona Flockhart and Alice Jacson kept the Eyre Peninsula team from running away with the match.
However the 20 minutes of the first half seemed to be enough for coach Marc Johnson to analyse and strategise, as the second half began with a much more even contest. The Port Pirie team's small changes took effect immediately with the Port Lincoln side finding passes to the midfield being intercepted and the momentum of the game started to accelerate into a fast flowing affair with each team afforded opportunity to score.
It took until four minutes remaining until Emily Howard again did enough to post her third goal from four matches, giving Port Pirie a one nil advantage. Despite all efforts from both teams, the score remained one nil at full time, giving the Port Pirie Women's Hockey team the enviable record having remained unbeaten for a streak of 10 matches in regular time.
With 12 points on signed off, the Lower South East team looked ripe for the picking and the Port Pirie side quickly stamped authority over the match. A show of confidence from coach Johnson saw the team young guns Edyn Manfield, Talia Phillips, Jordan Ganley, Katelyn Guy, Montana Coe and Teneal Malycha positioned and in control of the centre and left side of the field. A great show was presented from the young Port Pirie talent allowing Sean Blieschke to post her second goal for the tournament and Emily Howard her fourth. A perfect fifteen points from five games made this year's Port Pirie team successful, even before the main event had begun.
A much anticipated final between the two form teams was to be decided at 4pm on Sunday. Both squads had shown the ability to win hockey matches and were equally capable of taking out the championship. Port Pirie had proved its defensive strategy effective having only two goals scored against them over five round matches but faced an opposition that had scored the most goals for the tournament, and looked the most dangerous of rivals.
Both teams flew into battle as the first pass was made and the contest continued at a great pace, with both sides making short corner opportunities and getting goal shots away, however both defensive units were not allowing for clear-cut opportunities, and near misses were the result with the best of the chances being a breakaway attack to Port Lincoln, which was ended by a courageous sliding save by Colyer, with 3 minutes remaining in the first half.
As the second half began, neither side showed signs of weakening. Both teams had managed to keep a good tempo up for the entirety of the match, and the game remained tight until the opportunity for Howard to bag her fifth goal presented itself. A period of good sustained attacking hockey finally had the Port Lincoln side wanting, and with five minutes remaining Howard's final touch made the score one nil. The Port Lincoln unit had no inclination to give in and proceeded to double down on blocking the ball in the Port Pirie defensive half. After sustained pressure on the Port Pirie defense, the Port Lincoln side finally found their chance as a poorly executed pass was intercepted and then dispatched goal ward quickly and effectively, making the scores equal with only two minutes remaining. A nightmarish scenario for the Port Pirie side saw Port Lincoln holding the momentum and having nothing to lose, and Port Pirie after being so close, having to hold on, and then face a penalty shoot out with last year's grand final shootout loss looming in the back of their minds. The Port Lincoln team was unrelenting in their attack, and with only seconds remaining, forced another mistake from the Port Pirie defense and were awarded a short corner. It was a nail-biting moment for players and spectators alike as the corner was taken. Another timely save from goalkeeper Colyer proved to be enough and the Port Pirie side was able to hang on to a one all draw at full time.
Five of Port Pirie's bravest then nominated themselves the task of taking a one on one penalty against the Port Lincoln goal keeper to decide the championship. With 25 yards and 10 seconds between herself and the goal, goal scoring legend Sean Blieschke led the way for the Port Pirie team making her second effort count after her first shot was blocked by the keeper with the ball rebounding back into a most opportunistic place. Goalkeeper Colyer kept a calm head for her first defensive shootout, keeping agile and positioning herself well, blocking the first shot at goal out of play. Ganley made no mistake with her penalty and showed her individual talent by eliminating the opponent keeper with confidence, getting her first goal for the tournament. Colyer showed no weakness as Port Lincoln's stars lined up, forcing the second penalty attempt high over the fence for no score.
With a two nil buffer, young forward Katelyn Guy made short work of the opposition keeper, scoring a great goal and giving a massive three nil advantage to her team mates. Colyer again showed nerves of steel and calmly fended off what would become the final Port Lincoln penalty, blocking yet another goal attempt away to safety and therefore winning the championship for Port Pirie, and also winning herself a well deserved Most Valuable Player award for the final.
All players should be commended on an admirable performance. Winning six straight games for a championship victory is a truly rare achievement in any sport and for a team of players to achieve this in only the second year of competition makes it even more spectacular. Congratulations!