Mavericks will defend their title against Team Bath in the Co-operative Netball Grand Final on Saturday 4th April after playing in the match of the season at Loughborough. It went to extra-time, in the end was decided by just the one goal and when the final whistle blew there was disbelief and delight in equal measure. You can watch the game in full on Thursday at 1730 on Sky Sports 3 but if you can't wait til then let me take you through the match.
As is often the case in the opening skirmishes of a game the players are trying to suss each other out. In Loughborough's circle young Alex Kirk settled in very well as Jo Harten was given a hard time by Mavericks keeper Naida Hutchinson. It was the start of a pattern repeated throughout the match as Hutchinson played a blinder. Lightning's shooter must have felt like she was playing against Mr Tickle as when the ball seemed to be safely in her possession somehow Hutchinson's hand was there to take it away. Both teams were very tight in defence throughout the match and coaches watching the replay will see performances of the very highest quality.
In the second quarter Mavericks stepped up the pace which upped the pressure on their hosts who had been taking a thoughtful approach to the game. Physically there was more contact in the second 15 minutes, plenty of jostling for position and possession, with so much at stake it's not surprising that every ball was contested in front of an increasingly excited crowd. The visitors were able to pull ahead largely because their defence were on fire, the turnovers were netted and at half-time it looked like Mavericks were going to pull away.
Whatever Olivia Murphy said to Loughborough at half-time found its mark. Supporters really began getting behind the sides in the third quarter, Mavericks had plenty of back-up travelling with them but it was Lightning's purple-wigged, face-painted fans who were roaring as the match changed direction again in the second half. Their player-coach was always in the right place at the right time and having been 4-goals behind at the whistle they moved level and then ahead for the first time in the match with 3 and a half minutes to go. The momentum had moved in favour of the home side with 15 minutes on the clock.
Loughborough came out on a mission at the start of the last quarter and with less than nine minutes on the clock it looked like they had done enough. They led Mavericks 39-30, surely that was game over a nine-goal lead must be enough to send them to Coventry! Mavericks didn't think so. The atmosphere in the arena was unbelievable hundreds of fans bellowing, stamping, cheering and clapping even for an impartial viewer the tension was palpable I was getting nervous and I don't know why. Goal-by-goal Mavericks hauled their way back into the game, Jo Harten was given no respite by Naida Hutchinson, the ball just wouldn't drop through the hoop for Lightning; Mavericks saw their shots barely touch the side. The semi-final was taken into extra time when the ball left Louisa Brownfield's hands to level just as the whistle marked the end of an hours play.
It was a superb comeback and Loughborough looked stunned but rallied themselves for the extra 7 minutes each-way. You didn't know which way to look, the old cliche of "end-to-end" netball was true, there was nothing to separate the sides and as the toll of 60 minutes of all-out effort began to take its toll it became increasingly painful to watch. Lightning centre Jade Clarke showed how hard the players were pushing, crippled by cramp she fought hard to continue but had to be subsituted and had to be helped off court. Mavericks edged ahead and the whistle blew, and the celebrations started, but it wasn't over. A timing error meant there was still half a minute to play the players came back on court and Loughborough tried to level but when the FINAL final whistle went they were one behind. There were tears and cheers.
Loughborough Lightning's Jade Clarke was devastated after the game "I'm sure it was good match for the specators, I'm just heartbroken really. It just felt so good to have that run in the last quarter but no excuses we let it slip and we did the same in the final last year. It's just not acceptable." The captain also revealed that shooter Jo Harten had been at something of a disadvantage in the match, "Jo broke her thumb on Wednesday on her shooting hand, we're so proud of the way she played through the pain."
Mavericks coach Kendra Slawinski "The players did Mavericks proud this evening, they deserve all the credit, they deservea all the accolades and I'm thoroughly delighted for our athletes. Both teams had opportunities and I'm just glad at the end of the day that we took ours and managed the one goal that proved crucial."
So the Grand Final on Saturday 4th April will be contested by Team Bath and reigning champions Mavericks at 1930 at Coventry Skydome. Tickets are on sale now.
GS: Louisa Brownfield
GA: Ella Clark
WA: Gemma Wiseman
C: Karen Atkinson (capt)
WD: Steph Bello
GD: Hazel Schofield
GK: Naida Hutchinson
photos Janos Schmidt