Orange takes back netball's Regional League crown in thrilling grand final win over Bathurst

It had to pull out all the stops to get the job done but with a gritty three-goal win over Bathurst in last weekend’s decider Orange reclaimed the Netball NSW Bing Lee West-Central West Regional League title, 12 months after having its 21-year reign ended by the same team.

The Thunder waltzed through the preliminary stages, cruising to the finals undefeated but were made to work hard to down Dubbo in Sunday morning’s semi-final before being forced to stifle an almighty Bathurst comeback in the decider that afternoon.

Orange led by as many as nine goals in the first half and then seven at the main break, before Bathurst brought the gap back to five at three-quarter time.

The reigning champions promptly scored four unanswered goals to open the final term, slashing the deficit to one and setting up a frantic, grandstand finish at Sir Neville Howse Stadium.

Although the final stages were sloppy – with plenty of turnovers, intercepts and a number of shots not dropping at both ends – Orange recovered, the side’s experience under pressure coming to the fore as it held on to win 39-36.

“Credit to Bathurst because they really came back at us and made us work really hard for the win,” Orange skipper Erin Johnstone, who cut a delighted and relieved figure after full-time, said.

“I think Orange rested on its laurels a little bit last year and Bathurst really deserved that win, so we knew we’d have to work hard if we wanted to get the trophy back this year.

“Experience and composure on the court I think (was the difference). You can get panicked when it gets sloppy and stop the drives, so being able to continue moving toward the ball, continue encouraging each other and make sure your shots go in is big.”

We knew we’d have to work hard if we wanted to get the trophy back.

Orange skipper Erin Johnstone

While understandably disappointed, Bathurst skipper Grace Broadfield was upbeat after the loss and couldn’t fault her troops’ determination, or performance.

“Three points is nothing in netball, you know, it’s one intercept or turnover. We came back from nine down at one stage and kept plugging away but we just ran out of time,” she said.

“I can’t believe how close it was in the end and it was nice to be able to come back from where we were. In the rounds they’d beaten us by 16 both times, so to fight hard and only go down by three was a big effort. It’s not entirely disappointing.

“There’s a good rivalry there and we’ll be back next year (to try and take the title back), 100 per cent.”

Orange shot out of the blocks, rocketing to a 7-1 lead in the opening 10 minutes and building that up to seven at quarter-time. The Thunder led by nine midway through the second quarter, before Bathurst reined them in slightly and fought back to trail 22-15 at half-time, before lifting majorly after the break.

While Orange executed well at the back and through the middle, Bathurst’s defensive end kept Johnstone and her attacking partner Emily Neal quiet for the best part of the third term.

The visitors fought back to trail by just three midway through the third quarter before back-to-back Neal goals on the stroke of three-quarter-time pushed Orange’s lead back to five.

That was cut to one as Bathurst forced, then capatilised on a number of Orange errors. But Orange consolidated and, as it has so many times before, closed out a thrilling win.

Johnstone was among Orange’s best in the pressure-bound fourth-quarter, nailing her side’s first three goals of the period. 

Neal also found her range in the clutch moments after a couple of missed shots early in the quarter, but the side’s real stars in the deciding moments were at the other end of the court.

The Thunder’s circle defenders Abby Tilburg and Caitlyn Harvey were magnificent, fiercely applying pressure to Bathurst’s shooters to halt the comeback and create several chances their own side swooped on.

In the mid-court, Tash Rudd was particularly impressive for Orange throughout the final. She created a number of turnovers through pure tenacity and her decision-making under pressure was superb.

With Orange Netball Association once again foregoing the Samsung State Championships, Johnstone said her side will look to the 2018 State Cup in September, Sunday’s win earned the Thunder qualification.

The State Cup brings together the winners of all the Regional Leagues and the Dooleys Metro League too, with the overall winner crowned NSW champions. The highest-finishing regionally-based side is also awarded the Inter-Regional League crown.

“We’ll really be looking forward to that and of course we have the [Toyota Cup] that will put us in pretty good stead,” Johnstone said, before suggesting their may be somewhat of a changing of the guard now the Regional League trophy is back in Orange.

“There’ll be more motivation to keep the trophy here, definitely, and I think a lot of it will come down to getting the right group of girls together. We’re fortunate to have so much depth coming through our association, so I think some of the younger girls might step up next year.

“Hopefully they can keep the trophy here.”