And so a wonderful season of soccer in the Goulburn Valley wraps up — and what a campaign it was for some of the region’s best squads.
From mid-February, when the Goulburn Valley Suns kicked off their National Premier League Two campaign, rare has been the weekend where McEwen Reserve and pitches across the area have not been occupied by 22 players going to war for their clubs.
It all culminated with a Bendigo Amateur Soccer League grand final bonanza back at the Theatre of Dreams, a massive crowd at the Shepparton South-hosted event witnessing a memorable Shepparton United double.
It is time for a look back at the region’s senior NPL and BASL clubs and how they performed against expectations this season.
BASL — men’s
Shepparton United — premier, 18-3-2 - A+
United’s season was not flawless, but winning a grand final in such impressive style certainly earns a high distinction.
The Blues triumphed 2-0 against Eaglehawk in Sunday’s decider, capping an outstanding year in which they finished second on the ladder.
There are impressive nuggets wherever you look when reflecting on their campaign; most crucially, they conceded just 15 goals in 23 games this season, a defence including captain Nick Kalafatis, Reza Baqiri and James Kalafatis always proving tough to break down.
Mohammed Al-Gazaly topped the scoring charts with 14 goals, Ermal Marku scoring 13 in 14 games, in scoring form throughout outside a mid-year holiday.
The side had injuries all year, but never let its performance level waver, only odd results like a 2-2 draw with Colts United and a 1-0 loss to Shepparton South keeping it from the championship-league cup double.
But before the season, coach Roven Shaholli stated his side’s aim was a premiership — and his Blues delivered on that promise.
Shepparton South — third, 14-1-6 — B
The reigning premier looked strong for the bulk of the season without hitting the same heights it reached last year.
For every statement win — a 1-0 win against United and a 2-1 triumph against Strathdale — there were failures against the league’s big dogs, such as multiple losses to Eaglehawk and Tatura.
The side improved after a mid-season coach swap when Gino Saracino took the reins from Reno Lia, but simply could not get it done in the big games.
Its campaign ended with somewhat of a whimper, knocked off 2-1 at home against Strathdale before becoming a non-factor in finals.
Joel Aitken led his side’s scoring comfortably with 27 goals in 15 games, but hauls of six, five and eight meant he failed to score in more than half his appearances.
Tatura — fifth, 12-4-4 — C+
Tatura had the talent to do far more than it did this season and would be wondering to this day how it failed to at the very least play finals.
It lost to just two sides — twice each to top sides Eaglehawk and Shepparton United — but the biggest factor in missing the finals by three points was consecutive 3-3 draws with Moama-Echuca and Epsom, coughing up four points that always should have been its.
Positives included its big three, with Sean Grant (18 in 18), Lewis Coyle (16 in 19) and Thomas Leech (13 in 19) combining for 47 of the Ibises’ 61 goals.
But not only did they lose a combined four times to the top two sides, they did not score against them either, with plenty of room to improve next year should they bring a similar squad to the table.
Shepparton — 10th, 3-1-16 — D+
From the jump, the Reds acknowledged they were in a rebuilding phase, but the wheels fell off a touch as the year rattled on.
They beat bottom-ranked Golden City twice and smacked Moama-Echuca 6-2 in round three, but left plenty of points on the table against sides like the Border Raiders and Colts United.
Omran Alhamzah proved a smash hit with eight goals in 10 games before not featuring for the side after round 11.
BASL — women’s
Shepparton United — 20-1-1 — A++
There aren’t enough plaudits in the world to hand to a juggernaut of a side that knocked off all in its path this season.
United was challenged throughout, but always up for the battle, undefeated now in its past 21 games after a 3-0 grand final win against Shepparton South, adding to its championship success.
The Blue and White Wall that is its defence conceded nine goals in 22 games, a defensive record the world’s best sides dream of.
Its nearest rival Shepparton South was handed four beatings, 5-1, 3-0, 5-1 and 3-0 to show its dominance at the top was no fluke whatsoever.
Star forward Sophie Papalia finished the year with 34 goals in 21 games, helping her to fourth in BASLW Player of the Year voting.
In hindsight, there was not a result all year in any sport that was as inexplicable as the Blues’ 3-2 loss to seventh-ranked Eaglehawk on the first day of the season, especially considering they led that game 2-0.
They missed their chance to put together an unbeaten season, but can drown their sorrows by drinking from the premiership cup.
Shepparton South — 14-3-3 — A
The Southerners were fighting an uphill battle all year to knock off United, but were clearly the best of the rest.
They scored for fun all year with 101 goals — 62 of those for Alicia Rowan — and were well led at the back by Alicia Laffy, with midfielders Lucinda Murdoch and Jen Tran also impressing.
A 2-1 loss to Colts United was the worst result, but a 4-0 preliminary final demolition of third-ranked Strathdale was clearly the best.
Ralph Giuliani’s side simply couldn’t get it done against a truly powerful side.
Tatura — 0-1-19 — C
This was the first time since 2015 Tatura fielded a women’s side, and while the results weren’t ideal, it fought throughout and made some strides forward.
It started the year with what coach Laurie Rando said were six or seven players that hadn’t played before, so the results were not all unexpected.
A 0-0 draw against Eaglehawk was the only time the side avoided defeat, but meant the side would not leave the season empty-handed.
Goulburn Valley Suns — fifth, 11-5-12 — B
The Suns showed flashes of excellence, but showed plenty more inconsistency, a mid-table finish an accurate reflection of how the side got on.
It hovered around third and fourth on the table for a lot of the year, but were never truly in the promotion hunt, with top duo Dandenong City and Moreland City gapping the field.
Conceding 55 goals is far too much if a side wants to do more than make up the numbers — the top two conceded a combined 57.
It is all well and good to control games and look defensively sound 90 per cent of the time, but if the remaining 10 per cent is costing the side valuable points that could have been ridden to a promotion push, then the side has a problem.
Recruits Billy Marshall and Jordan Barrow made the grade well and Jamie England again was strong, but missed plenty of games with injury niggles.
Up forward, coach Craig Carley scored 16 goals in an impressive campaign, while youngster Alou Kuol is the clear shining light, having stepped up to the senior side with six goals.