Grand Final Heartache

I’m now actually pleased that Richmond never makes the finals – it has probably saved me two or three heart attacks. Coaching my first basketball Grand Final was more nerve racking than watching Collingwood throw away another premiership in the dying seconds.

I didn’t sleep at all the night after the game and two days later my head is still spinning.

Let me set the scene. Our team, which plays in an under-14 C grade competition, started the season with too few players and no coach. Initially the club guru, who coaches about four teams, took the girls until I caved in: “OK, I’ll do it!”

I was already coaching my other daughter’s under-12 team, so I’d now committed to two nights of training and two games a week. Help!

The under-14s were a hotchpotch in the grading games, which decide what level each team is at. Some weeks we only had four players, but thankfully when the proper games began we had a regular squad of six (for the uninitiated you have five players on the court).

We lost just two games for the rest of the season, both against the top side. About half-way through a previous teammate joined us, swelling our ranks to a relatively healthy seven.

Our girls were great. The gelled well together and tried their hearts out. I’m a relatively new coach so no Lindsay Gaze, but they listened and – mostly – turned up to training.

Our cause was also helped by “Richo”. Playing in her first full season at a relatively late age, she has massive potential and is just like a young Matthew Richardson – long limbs flailing everywhere and a whisker away from being fouled off most weeks.

Like Richo, she could be anything.

When she wasn’t being fouled off this girl dominated most games. One week we played the bottom team and tried everything to even the game up. We took a player off and banned shooting inside the key. But she still racked up 31 points.

Before we knew it, finals time arrived. Two knock-out semis and the granny. Our semi-final followed the same pattern as our earlier games with that team. Most of the game was close until we drew away at the end to win by about eight points.

Going into the Grand Final we were the underdogs – our opponents were undefeated. I told the girls we had to be on our game and force them into making errors, just like they do in the AFL.

A few weeks earlier, when they were assuming we’d win the semi, I gave them four words: Carlton and Gold Coast. The problem was, most of them don’t follow footy and had no idea what I was talking about.

The big game started as predicted, with my girls a bit nervous and struggling to match their much bigger and stronger opposition. Our third tallest player was on holidays, leaving us with six.

Within about eight minutes it was 0-7 and not looking good.

If we didn’t start scoring it was going to be a rout. Slowly we clawed our way into it thanks largely to Richo, who was nervous and unsurprisingly had three fouls in the first five minutes but had finally settled into her game.

At half time we were four points down, which was still not ideal against an undefeated team but the fat lady had not yet cleared her vocal cords.

The second half started well. We got the first goal and the girls found their groove, hassling their hearts out. Our three smallest players defended like champions, forcing their more fancied opposition to cough the ball up and miss shots they’d normally make.

Richo was there to clean up at the other end, just like her footy namesake.

Then, with about four minutes to go, we hit the front!

I couldn’t watch. The other team was much more experienced at running the clock down and I’d specifically told my girls at training to give them a dose of their own medicine. But they struggled to control it in offence. Several times they lost it, only to win it back again.

I can feel my heart pounding just writing this and knowing what happened next. With less than a minute to go, the ladder leaders goaled and the scores were level.

My girls tried valiantly to keep possession but the opposition’s star player, whom we’d done such a great job to contain all night, snatched the ball and hurtled down the court. One of our small girls took chase with all her might and just as Star was about to dribble into the key and do a layup (she NEVER misses) she literally dived at her and fouled.

Two shots.

With three seconds left on the clock, Star dobbed them both.

They were two points up.

Pass the Bex!

But then, when one team should have been cheering and the other licking their wounds, it got messy. And this is why children’s sport needs more regulation.

My husband was scoring on the computer, entering the official goals and fouls, while an opposition representative was controlling the court scoreboard and time clock. In Grand Finals the clock must be stopped on every whistle for the last three minutes.

I’d already had to tell this woman to stop the clock after a whistle, which saw at least five seconds eaten up. She then let the clock run down after the final free shots so the siren went before anyone had a chance to think. Chaos ensued and no-one knew what was going on for several minutes until the referees, who did a fantastic job, put another three seconds on the clock.

Talk about an anti-climax. My girls threw the ball in and raced it down to Richo, who rushed a shot up but just missed. Game over.

It was a fantastic match and the other team deserved to win – they finally got their act together in the last minute and exploited my girls’ lack of offensive cohesion. But the time keeping issue left a distinctly sour taste in everyone’s mouths.

Messing up the clock is bad enough in a regular game, let alone a Grand Final. There should have been an experienced independent time keeper, which would have ensured it finished as it should have – with great excitement.

Regardless, I was really proud of all the girls. They did everything asked of them and played the game of their lives against a much stronger opposition. Within five minutes they were over the loss, which made me even prouder. At the presentation they were just as happy with their red-ribboned medals as the dark blue winning ones. Well done guys!

Now I just have to get the Tigers into the finals so they can give me another heart attack!





  1. Bloody terrible feeling Cheryl, regardless of the sport or the level. In 1992 I captained a C Grade Volleyball team. The team we played in the GF had thrashed us 3-0 twice during the season. In the GF we were 2-0 up and heading for a huge upset until we started to panic and lost the last set 16-14, therefore losing the game 2-3. We still talk about it with my mates 20 years later and shake our heads.

    The only good to come out of it was that 3 years later we won back-to-back B Grade GF’s. However, we mostly remember the one that got away. Really enjoyed the article :)

  2. Cheryl Critchley says

    Thanks Lord Bogan. It is surreal isn’t it? One minute we were two points up, then with three seconds to go two points down! The timekeeping issue just added to the pain when we wanted it all to be over with. Finally I think i can empathise with Collingwood fans. Never thought I’d see the day! Well done on your volleyball effort. Pity you couldn’t hang on. Sounds like our team was similar – couldn’t hold them off.

  3. Alovesupreme says

    You’re a trouper, and the under 14 girls are fortunate to have you as a coach – knowledgeable, committed, but retaining a sense of perspective. You certainly carried us with you conveying the sense of excitement and desperation, elation and disappointment of the closing moments.

    You and your team know that they achieved good things, and to send the GF to the last few seconds against (apparently) more talented opposition is a real accomplishment. You seem to have provided your charges with the gift to “win without crowing, lose without crying”. If they have absorbed that message, you’ve given them something priceless.

  4. Cheryl Critchley says

    Thanks Alovesupreme. Losing sucks, especially when it’s close, but I think you need to take the positives out of it and there were plenty! Hopefully we all learned from it.

  5. Ripper yarn. Commiserations to you and the girls. But congrats on getting there and nearly pulling it off.

  6. Cheryl Critchley says

    Hi John,
    I now know how Geelong felt in the 1990s! Pity it had to be a basketball game and not a footy one! Maybe one day the Tigers will give me just as much pain in a final as they do during the regular season :-)

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