Coach Paula Stuart credited the strength of the team behind the team as the key ingredient in the outstanding result.
“Coming into this (team), which hasn’t done well in the past, probably the past 10 years, to achieve this tonight is amazing. It took a lot of people to get here and I can’t believe we did this in one year,” she said. She also paid credit to the players who put in the work all season to achieve this outcome.
From the outset, it was a tight affair. The Cougars got away to a solid start, converting two consecutive Wildcats centre passes to tip the scoreboard to 4-0 in the first 90 seconds. This was a clinical Cougars game play. Centre, Macy Gardner, was everywhere, zooming around the court at lightning speed and creating opportunities across the court. It was a good start for the favourites.
In fact, this start was in sharp contrast to their last start against the Wildcats, where the Cougars trailed by as much as 10 goals for most of the match. Tonight, it was a different team and the passes were sharp and clean.
However, as determined as the Cougars were, the Wildcats simply refused to be rattled. They settled themselves and worked to find their rhythm. A brilliant Hulita Veve (WA) intercept changed the momentum and put the Wildcats on the offensive. In true Veve fashion, she led from the front, creating opportunities and delivering the ball well and within moments the score was back to level pegging. Coach Paula Stuart said Veve was making a compelling case for a return to the Firebirds camp.
The Wildcats attack unit, led by the powerful goal-machine, Aleesha Adams-Te Haara (GS), along with Steph Bairstow (GA) and Leesa Mi Mi (WA) worked to capitalise on every opportunity. Cougars’ Remi Kamo (GK) has speed on her side, but when Adams-Te Haara uses her long reach and outside arm to pull down the high balls, there’s no defending against that.
Bairstow’s accuracy was a bit wobbly and before too long the young Annabelle Lawrie was brought in to support Adams-Te Haara.
Considering Lawrie is still a teenager, her confidence up against experienced campaigners such as Ruby Bakewell-Doran (GD), a Firebirds training partner, was impressive. As the game progressed she backed herself more and she was sinking long bombs from all around the circle. Lawrie’s accuracy for the match was 70 per cent (19/27).
Adams-Te Haara out-manoeuvred the accomplished Remi Kamo (GK) and ended the match on 95 per cent, missing just two shots (39/41).
At the other end of the court, Rylie Holland (GS) was battling with the very springy Lenora Misa (GK), who achieved leaps of such height that it seemed certain that she had springs in her shoes. Holland’s accuracy remained solid, at 86 per cent (32/37) but to win a grand final, solid isn’t going to cut it.
Binnian Hunt (Cougars, GA) was also contending with a determined Danielle Taylor (GD) who delivered a strong first-half performance but in the second, seemed to accelerate to a whole new level. She was everywhere, getting fingertips to balls, intercepting and successfully distracting Hunt so she would miss.
Veve was the weapon across the mid-court, appearing from nowhere and claiming multiple intercepts.
What Veve is to the Wildcats, Maddie Hinchliffe (WD) is to the Cougars – an intercept weapon. But while she can normally be relied upon to read the game and pluck passes from mid-air, tonight her impact was minimised. She struggled to contain Leesa Mi Mi (WA) whose speed and limitless energy made her a challenge to defend.
For the Cougars, there were some positives. The polish and the speed of their transitions was impressive, swinging from defence into attack in a split-second. As soon as Kamo plucked the rebound out of the air, the team swung into position and the ball passed down the court in four rocket-like passes.
At half time score was 32 – 27 to the Cougars. It seemed as though they were gearing up for a strong second half and were going to claim their 14th championship crown.
But the Wildcats had an eighth player – the stadium-sized cheer squad who started to lift the roof off the QSNC as they willed their Wildcats on – and this would prove to be the secret weapon.
All through the third quarter they chanted, clapped and thumped their feet on the floors to rally their team. They raised clenched fists, they waved their banners and sang war cries. And the Wildcats responded. The third quarter finished with the Wildcats leading by three and winning the quarter 15 to 7.
The momentum stayed with the Wildcats throughout the fourth quarter. Taylor ratcheted up her intercept activity and the Wildcats edged out to a five-goal lead, 44-39.
The work done by Misa and Taylor and Veve in the defensive end cannot be underestimated. The Cougars were forced to pass backwards and across the court, unable to penetrate the circle cleanly. This pressure was relentless.
Mia Stower was brought on, replacing Rylie Holland. But the turnovers in the Cougars attack end was costly and, in the end, the momentum stayed with the Wildcats as they claimed the club’s first ever championship, 60-49.
Dannielle Taylor’s extraordinary efforts were recognised with the MVP award.