Hawks Netball’s Division 1 team will play off for a Victorian Netball League premiership after an upset 54-49 win over North East Blaze in the major semi-final.

The Hawks entered the game as underdogs against minor premiers Blaze, who went through the regular season undefeated, including one-goal and six-goal wins over the Hawks.

But in what was unquestionably one of the matches of the season, the Hawks found a way past the reigning Division 1 premiers (2019), pulling clear in the final term to win by five goals.

In a pulsating first quarter, Blaze snatched a one-goal lead on the final whistle courtesy of a long range bomb from goal shooter Kaylah Loulanting.

But the second quarter belonged to the Hawks as defensive duo Sally Deller and Chloe Duke went to work, holding Blaze to 10 goals for the quarter, while at the other end Hawks goal shooter Elle Rice (33 goals from 34 attempts) and Hannah Keane (22 from 27) slotted 15 goals from 16 attempts to help their side establish a 29-25 advantage.

Blaze fought back in the third, reestablishing their connections in the attacking third and adding 14 goals to the Hawks’ 12 to cut the margin to two.

But with the game on the line in the final term, the Hawks continued to find avenues to the goal circle through the tireless work of centre Abi Inglis and wing attack Ash Newham, and when Inglis and goal defence Deller produced two dazzling turnovers late in the game, it was enough for the Hawks to kick clear and hold on for an unforgettable win.

Hawks co-vice captain Caitlyn Alifraco – sidelined for the season through injury – said she was proud of the composure her teammates were able to show in the heat of finals.

“Blaze are such a well rounded and experienced team who were undefeated throughout the regular season so we knew that we would have to put together our best netball to get on top,” she said.

“The girls showed so much calm and composure throughout the entire game. Each time we got a run on, Blaze would fight back and narrow the lead, pushing us until the final siren.”

“Our defensive end was relentless, with Sally and Chloe working their magic in the circle and Sasha and Abi out front, getting tips and matching their players with every step. Ash was a workhorse, taking so much contested ball with grace. Hannah and Elle were on fire, ripping in the ball and shooting the house down. Kate came on and played her role with a calm but speedy nature.”

“I’m just so proud of this amazing group of girls. Everyone played their role last night, and showed our incredible brand of netball.  I can’t wait to see what we produce in the grand final!”

Division 1 coach AJ Ballantyne paid tribute to the players for holding their nerve, particularly as all bar one of the starting seven had never experienced a VNL finals game.

“Blaze are a quality team and we have a huge amount of respect for their players and coaches, but we knew that if we came out and executed the simple things well, we’d be in with a chance,” he said.

“They’re so good with ball in hand and they give you very little, so we knew we had to take advantage of any opportunity, because it might be the only one you get for a while.”

“Elle was obviously outstanding under the post – shooting at 97% in a pressure game like that is absolutely remarkable. But the support she got from Hannah, who’s really grown across the year in her first Division 1 season, was absolutely crucial to the result.”

“I’m sure Abi and Ash will be sore today – they both worked so hard to ensure we continued to get to the circle. And Sal, Chloe and Sasha (Witts) all stood up in some key moments.”

Ballantyne said the focus would now turn to preparing for the grand final, where the Hawks will face the winner of Blaze and Geelong Cougars, who defeated City West Falcons in the minor semi-final.

“Last night it was great to have a moment to celebrate but now it’s time to regroup and start looking ahead and making sure we’re firing in two weeks time.”