2023 has been a year to remember at the VAFA.
As we pull the curtain across to close out the year, VAFA Media has siphoned through the moments of the season and formulated a top 40.
Throughout this week, join Joe Pignataro has been counting down to the number #1 moment of the year.
Featuring today: Final and Grand Final performances that will stand up against the test of time. Incredible vote counts at the VAFA Awards Night, and the return of the Big V was a sight to behold.
Did you miss any of the countdown to this point?
#10 – FROM THE PIE-STAND TO THE CHANGE ROOM FOR LIAM GUNSON
In the aftermath of St Kevin’s beating Old Scotch in the second semi-final, a week of adversity followed. Quite literally up until the first bounce.
With the traditional Sunday preliminary final spot reverted back to Saturday, SKOB had one less day’s preparation than their opponents, University Blues.
On top of that, defender Sam Cameron and midfielder Cal Matheson battled a week of illness and ruled themselves out of the team 24 hours out from the first bounce.
At the conclusion of the warm-up, a third SKOB was to go down. 2022 Jock Nelson Medallist, Tom Jok. A calf-strain saw the star withdrawn from the team. On a hot day with the reserves almost completed, the only replacement left was Liam Gunson. Sitting on the hill recovering from his U19 Saturday morning training session in preparation for that Grand Final next week.
Six senior games to his name at the start of the season, he is recalled 15 minutes before the first bounce. A mad-dash home to get his boots, throw him jumper #38 and the young lad didn’t at all look out of place or overawed by the moment.
When he ran on the ground, for the first time halfway through the first quarter, Phil Edgar came hobbling off with a hamstring injury. More game time for Gunson.
On tired legs in the final term, as the Wallis boys ran rampant, it was Gunson who put the final nail in the Blues coffin with a goal on the left from half forward to seal another Grand Final berth for St Kevin’s and a memory that will last a lifetime.
#9 – ZOE GLASCOTT IS BUILT FOR GRAND FINAL DAY
How do you stop an unbeaten Beaumaris streak of 36 victories?
Play Zoe Glascott in the forward line on Grand Final day.
During the home and away season, Glascott performed admirably from her 9 matches, kicking 18 goals. Against Beaumaris during the home and away season, just a single goal in each encounter.
Finals brings out a different beast in people. Older readers to this column will remember a bloke at Richmond in the 1980’s Kevin Bartlett who went to new heights in September. Think Darren Jarman at Adelaide in 1997, and 1998.
Glascott did the same for the Sheagles. Three finals, 15 goals. Including an unstoppable eight majors on Grand Final day to end the winning streak of the Sharks.
A performance like this deserved the best on ground medal, and that’s what she received for a individual showing that is up there with the greatest we’ve ever seen in the VAFA.
#8 – MARTY GLEESON A WOODROW MEDAL WINNING SEASON
Marty Gleeson joined the University Blues at the beginning of the 2022 season. Coming to the club he is highly credentialed with an established AFL career behind him.
Very quickly he turned into one of the competition’s premier defenders and caught the eye of the umpires finishing equal sixth in the 2022 Woodrow Medal.
In 2023, he was able to climb the leaderboard, despite battling through the season with a knee injury Gleeson performed even better than his inaugural season in the competition winning the Woodrow Medal with a 3-vote performance in the final round of the year to surpass Collegian forward, Dave Mirra.
Gleeson becomes the second player from Uni Blues to win the award in the past five seasons, alongside his now retired captain Ayce Cordy. While he’d give it back to have another shot at September he will go into next year’s season as the warm favourite to do what his captain did in 2018 and 2019 going back to back.
#7 – CATE STANTON MAKES EVERY POST A WINNER IN 2023
It’s no great shock to Tom Purcell and anyone at St Kevin’s that Cate Stanton’s debut season in the competition yielded a Big V jumper, a couple of momentum shifting goals in the Grand Final, a Premiership and the Shona MacInnes Medal as the best player in William Buck Premier Women’s.
Stanton, a former GWS Giants player didn’t have a home at the start of the year and through connections ended up at TH King Oval.
A handy place to find yourself when the club has made going through a transition look as easy as it does.
On the VAFA Awards Night, Stanton was halfway down the leaderboard with six rounds of the season to go. Finishing like a freight train she was given votes in the final home and away game to take the lead and the medal away from her St Kevin’s teammate Sarah Betts.
While a tied result would have been fitting for all at TH King. Stanton produced a stellar individual season and has set the benchmark for the girls at SKOB leading into 2024.
#6 – ST BERNARD’S GO THROUGH THE SEASON UNDEFEATED
There weren’t too many who picked St Bernard’s to go through the 2023 season undefeated, apart from this columnist. Granted, it’s something I’ve been saying since the inception of the For the Love of the Game podcast since 2018. And, as Grumpy Brian would often tell me “a broken clock is right twice a day.”
After the disappointment of 2022, being relegated to Premier B. St Bernard’s set about using the off-season to reset, and revamp the club. A new President in, along with new coach Steve Alessio, a couple of handy recruits of young boys who don’t know losing, and a dream start to the year with six of the first eight games at the Snakepit.
The boys of Essendon had winners on every line. Led boldly by Mitch Hughes across the backline, Matt Sauro then gave his midfielders Charlie Vague, and Jordan Farrell first use of it while Ferg McNicol and Luke Di Lizio became focal points up forward.
Ben Huggard capped off a brilliant year by being a joint-winner of the GT Moore Medal as the best player in Premier B.
They were thrown a serious challenge by Fitzroy on Grand Final day. Down by 24 points within minutes of the game starting, the Snowdogs were able to navigate through the stormy seas and return the club to William Buck Premier in their 60th anniversary.
The premiership made even more sweeter with the Reserves claiming the title against Old Trinity earlier that day, a feat that has only happened twice previously.
#5 – COLLEGIANS SECURE A-SECTION PREMIERSHIP PENNANT NUMBER 18
The most discussed story on the podcast. The Purple Army had a year, and a day where everything went to script.
You will be hard pressed to find a more dominant display than what Collegians put out on the park in 2023. From the opening minute of Round 1 the Lions looked determined to get their own slice of destiny.
Spurred on by the heartache of a straight sets exit in 2022, Jared Rivers coached this team brilliantly from the outset.
What a luxury for Kenny Ong, Sam Hibbins, Viv Michie and Jim Bazzani to win the ball out of the centre and kick it in the direction of Dave Mirra, Ed Greene and Will Pocknee. If they didn’t win it from the middle, it was no problem for Matt Warren, Sam Sofronidis, Nick Canny and Luke McCleary to take it back for the Lions.
It was a trio of Will’s who put together breakout seasons. Starting with Mayhood, forced to ruck for most of the year. As versatile a player that we have seen at this level. Will Pocknee, the Lions secret weapon, hasn’t had a year like this. Will Pewtress is a human wrecking ball and he’s only 18. How exciting it is to be aligned with the Harry Trott Oval.
Jared Rivers, the most relaxed coach in the competition, had his swansong. Bidding farewell to coaching alongside Mirra, Lachie Ferguson and Al Fahey. Sam Hibbins was given the best day of his life as the Lions finally got redemption from 2017 and 2018 beating St Kevin’s by 85 points.
The second biggest margin in A-Section Grand Final history.
#4 – ROMANO LIVES OUT EVERY CHILDHOOD DREAM FOR PARKSIDE
Parkside have gone from Grand Final heartbreak last year, to Premiership glory in 2023. Not only have they bounced back stronger than ever but have done so in fine fashion in a come-from-behind thriller over the Old Yarra Cobras.
At one point the Devils looked gone, trailing by as much as 40 points before the tide started to turn in their favour.
Within shooting distance at three quarter time the Devils kept chipping away at the Cobras lead. With the momentum on their side, and in the dying stages it was Michael Romano who stood up for his side, booting the final goal to secure the 3-point victory.
The stuff of absolute fairytales. 25 goals Romano kicked for the season, countless others across his career. None more special or fitting for the occasion. A name that is synonymous with Parkside will forever be remembered for delivering the club its first flag since 1988.
What an amazing effort it was to come back from 40 points down to walk away with the Seniors and Reserves double.
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#3 – BREE DOYLE HAS A DAY SHE’LL NEVER FORGET
There are players that transcend Australian rules football by a single act of brilliance (such as Michael Romano and Zoe Glascott listed above). And then, there are players that showcase their talent and give 100% of effort every single week, who refuse to wilt, and cave, no matter how much pain they’re in.
Bree Doyle, St Kevin’s co-captain fits the bill as the #1 player who refuses to let four quarters go by her.
On Grand Final Day, Doyle reached game #100, the co-captain with Margie Gleeson of the famous St Kevin’s side put an exclamation point on the contest by kicking the final goal of the game and sealing a famous victory. A moment typified her excellence. Doyle has told VAFA Media in the aftermath, she isn’t a known goalkicker, and has probably never chased or run as hard for the ball as she did in those split seconds.
Doyle has had a stellar 2023, taking over the captaincy at the start of the season with the departures of Sophie Straford and Sarah Cameron, awarded the honour of being part of the Women’s Big V program this year, and then elevated herself with the announcement of her being the captain, and in her milestone game being awarded the best player on the ground.
Tom Purcell declared a statue is being built for Doyle at the club-rooms in the pre-game, as the best from St Kevin’s to ever pull on a jumper. They have officially started to commission that after her performance this year.
#2 – BEN WOODFULL IS A SEPTEMBER HERO AT THE HARRY TROTT OVAL
Saturday, September 9, 2023 – Where were you when?
That will be the question everyone aligned with Collegians will be asking themselves over the coming years when they recount the 2023 season.
While they may still have won the Premiership had they lost this game, the efforts in the final eight minutes of the first semi-final against University Blues will stand up as the greatest period in recent history for this famous club.
Twice in this match the University Blues opened up a 24 point lead. The first four goals of the game saw the Lions have to claw their way back, and then at the 20-minute mark of the final term when Sam Grimley bombed it through, and VAFA commentator Simon Petch declared “the University Blues are in the Grand Final in 2023.”
Enter big Ben Woodfull. He got on top of Ayce Cordy in the ruck, and was able to give his midfielders first use. A quick responding goal from Dave Mirra wrestled back some momentum, Lachie Ferguson goaled from long-range and then Max Pinchbeck followed suit.
As the Lions surged forward with time still on the clock, a wayward Fletcher McIvor kick fell into the sliding arms of Ben Woodfull.
As all of Elsternwick Park stood still, with Wesley boy Josh Heriot on the microphone watching his great mate go back, the nerves of the moment around the ground didn’t get the better of Benny as he walked in and coolly slotted his one and only goal for the year.
Collegians held on for the final 60 seconds, and moved into the Grand Final. Ben Woodfull the hero, his interview post-game has become legendary.
With the monkey off the back, the Lions could enjoy Preliminary Final day, and be primed and ready for the Grand Final glory a fortnight later.
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#1 – BIG V PREVAIL IN AN ALL-TIME CLASSIC OVER PERTH FOOTBALL LEAGUE
WOW. What a return to representative footy we were treated to on a Saturday afternoon in July at Elsternwick Park.
The Big V side, selected by coach Greg Hutchison put on one of the best displays of Amateur football against the Perth Football League the game has ever seen.
With the margin blowing out to 38 points at the main-change, the Vics would breathe a sigh of relief at the break. The Sandgropers were busy planning their response.
The twin-towers of Perth became focal points, Kyle Halligan and Ryan Vermeersch. Trey Kennedy put his name on the scoresheet. The chances for the Big V were whittled down.
Everything in the premiership quarter came up black and gold. Going into the final change with momentum on their side, Perth FL trailed by just six points.
A dramatic 32-minute final quarter followed with the game on a knife’s edge as it see-sawed between the arcs and the lead changed hands.
Henry Brown had ice in his veins throughout the dying stages. While Charlie MacIsaac was at his scintillating best with six majors for the day.
Not satisfied to play out the clock and restart for extra time, bodies crashed in, players willed themselves to every ball. Josh Branchi takes a towering mark at centre half back, Ryan Valentine concedes a 50m penalty. From centre half back to centre half forward, as the siren sounded.
With scores level, to win the game for Perth, the Branchi kick fell short. 16.8.104 apiece. You can only dream about these days. Andrew Dawe, the CEO of Perth Football League, the only person in the stadium who picked a draw in the pre-game, now had to settle for extra time.
The final period of five minutes was a dream start for Victoria, Charlie MacIsaac received a free kick on the 45m arc and went whack. James Tarrant a minute later put the game beyond doubt, and then MacIsaac, to add the icing on a very sweet cake for the Vics put the final margin out to 19 points.
Every player on the ground absolutely exhausted. After four quarters, and two periods of extra time the Greg Hutchison’s men proved triumphant. The Big V claims victory for the first time since 2018.