A BLISTERING opening quarter - that is what Lithgow Panthers had to thank on Saturday as they were crowned women's Central West Premier League Hockey champions for 2022.
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The Panthers scored twice in the first quarter - their opening goal coming after just 45 seconds - to set up a 2-1 win over St Pat's at Bob Roach Field.
It was the third crown in four years for Panthers and it came from what was their 11th consecutive grand final.
It also came after the Saints had upset them two weeks earlier in the major semi-final.
"I think it was nerve-racking coming into it, once you get out there on the field you kind of do your thing, but the nerves are in the background," Panthers captain Millie Leard said.
"We didn't do very well against them in our major semi, but last week we had one of our best games of the season, so we came in pretty confident."
It was Leard who struck the first blow of the grand final. Left unmarked on the left edge of the circle the talent Panther had the time - and the cool head - to capitalise when a miss-trap saw the ball roll into her path.
It was a goal that certainly lifted the Panthers.
Five minutes later Saints goalkeeper Lili-Rae Campbell made a good block to deny Kellsey Charlton, then she turned away a penalty corner effort from Erin Burns.
But off Panthers' second penalty corner of the match they made it 2-0, Annie Buckley slotting the ball in on the right post.
Leard said that while going up 2-0 so quickly did not make the contest easier - the pace was high throughout - it did give her belief.
"I think it's always hard because they've got nothing to lose and we've got everything to lose when you go 2-0 up, but at the same time you just know it's going to be your day - well hopefully," she said.
Leard was right, it was Panthers' day.
Though the Saints did lift after that slow start, coach Bec Clayton admitted chasing a lead got to her players.
"They scored twice in like five minutes and we did get back in the game, but we just couldn't find the back of the net and panicked a bit," she said.
"We were chasing a score instead of playing our game. Our second half we started to find our structure a bit better, and we scored, but I think we just got it into our heads that we were down and we couldn't find our feet to come back from that.
"I think we definitely had the majority of the attack in that last quarter, we had everyone up and even took the keeper off and Lithgow couldn't find a way through, all they were trying to do was bash the ball down the other end."
The Saints' best chance of the first half came eight minutes out from half-time when Millie Fulton - who worked hard the whole match - attacked the left post.
But Panthers goalkeeper Bailee Staines was up to the task and made a sliding save.
It meant the Saints headed into the second half down 2-0, but that second half brought with it better hockey.
Whereas Lithgow won a majority of the 50-50 balls, constantly cut off attempted clearances, and pressed hard in the opening 30 minutes, the Saints began to find a way through that press.
Five minutes into the second half they were on the board, Macey Fulton tucking the ball inside the right post from a penalty corner play.
It set up a tense final quarter and things got even tenser for Panthers when two players were green carded in the space of 30 seconds.
But Panthers didn't concede for the 90 seconds they played two short.
They didn't concede when the Saints earned their fourth penalty corner of the match - Clare Bosman doing a brilliant job as first runner - and even after Pat's opted to sub-off goalkeeper Campbell with just under four minutes left and push all but one player forward, Panthers held firm.
"Overall their whole team is very strong and they've got a few very strong players that could literally change a game. So it was a bit nerve-racking, there was a time there when we had nine players, but we held strong," Leard said.
"I think when they took off their goalkeeper, I think that was a bit of a 'Okay, if we just hold it here we should have it' moment."
As for Clayton, naturally she was disappointed with the result but she was full of praise for what her squad did this season.
"It does hurt, but look, I'm super proud of the effort the girls put in this year. We didn't win but considering we weren't even sure if we would have a side at the start of the season, I'm chuffed we got here," she said.
LITHGOW PANTHERS 2 (Annie Buckley, Millie Leard) defeated ST PAT'S 1 (Macey Fulton)
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