Earlier this afternoon, Grangetown played host to Thoroughbreds in their home fixture of the Premier League 2 season.
The home side were boosted by the availability of three Scottish Thistles: Gemma Sole, Jo Pettitt and Nicola McCleery. The presence of the international players alongside some of the very best local netball talent had seen Grangetown produce some excellent recent performances; and the squad came into today’s match in sixth position, and on a three-game winning streak.
There was also a score to settle, as Thoroughbreds had won the last meeting between the teams by a single goal. The Norfolk-based club were just one place below Grangetown, and the stage looked set for a closely-fought encounter.
In a frenetic opening, the visitors had the better of the early exchanges, and quickly moved into a 4-0 lead. Gemma Sole finally broke the home side’s duck after almost five minutes, by which time there had been an early indication of what would be a physical and occasionally feisty game, with Jennifer Mrozik showing admirable restraint when the ball was needlessly pushed into her face.
Ria Small was then on the receiving end of another couple of very strong challenges, as Thoroughbreds looked to impose themselves on a Grangetown side that was making a number of uncharacteristic errors. An outstanding double interception from Jen Mrozik seemed to galvanise the team, who reduced the gap to two, before Thoroughbreds restored their four goal advantage at the end of the first quarter.
Despite falling further behind just twenty seconds into the second period, Grangetown battled back into contention, with Ria Small’s brilliant pass to set up Gemma Sole being the highlight. The Thoroughbreds advantage was again back down to just two goals, with Jo Pettitt finding the net after the officials had belatedly penalised a three-second violation.
There were still a physical side to the game, and there was understandable frustration as a number of calls went against the home side; typified when Jo Pettitt disputed a decision given when she was deemed to have lost possession, after she had been unceremoniously barged off the court.
Thoroughbreds were still two goals to the good at half time. They had a lot of pace through the centre of the court; they manoeuvred the ball well into the circle and were making the most of their opportunities.
Grangetown coach Gel Williams made a number of changes during the interval, and the hosts soon brought the scores level. In previous weeks, such a rally would have been the catalyst for Grangetown to push on and dominate, but Thoroughbreds continued to press and deny the home side any space, and their impressive spell of pressure resulted in six unanswered goals.
Faye Summerhill finally broke the sequence, and with Nicola McCleery having an excellent quarter at wing attack, Grangetown traded goals with the visitors and the score was 25-30 with just fifteen minutes remaining.
At that stage, it was hard to see the visitors relinquishing their lead. Kelly Chick was influential at centre, and in Frankie Layden, Thoroughbreds arguably had the best player on court. It was important that, whatever the final result, Grangetown needed to disregard the more frustrating elements of the game and produce their customary high tempo last quarter effort.
With less than five minutes on the clock, Grangetown trailed 31-37, but in a pulsating finish, the home side somehow managed to stage a dramatic fightback. They scored quickly from their own centre passes, and worked incredibly hard to force turnovers when Thoroughbreds had the restart.
Roared on by a vocal crowd, Grangetown brought the scores level at 37-37, before the final hooter denied them a chance to snatch what would have been a remarkable victory.
The Grangetown players will admit that this wasn’t their best performance of the season – and some credit for that must obviously go to the visitors. But the levels of belief, commitment and no little skill that were demonstrated in those closing minutes deserved to be rewarded; although Thoroughbreds will certainly be disappointed that they were unable to hang on to win the match.
Overall, it was a tremendous game of netball, a great advert for Premier League 2, and a wonderful example of how far this Grangetown squad has progressed during the season.
Picking a man of the match is no easy task. Realistically it should be one of the seven players who were on court during the closing minutes of the game (namely Katie Walton, Vicky Rees, Lesley Mouat, Jill Reah, Nicola McCleery, Gemma Sole and Jo Pettitt); and my vote goes to Gemma Sole.