Stingrays grab last-gasp glory

Michelle CarneyThey didn’t capture a fourth straight league title in first grade, but the Illawarra Stingrays are celebrating their maiden club championship.

Illawarra collected three wins, a draw and a loss from their season-ending matches with Blacktown on Sunday to finish as the top club in the NSW Women’s Premier League.

“We’re very happy but there was possibly a touch of relief as well, having to leave it to the last day of the season. There’s been a lot of text messages and pats on the back,” Stingrays coach Steve Marsh said.

“It’s a sign of the growth of football in the Illawarra region and, importantly, the strength of the Stingrays overall when you can put four teams out of five in the play-offs.

“To win the club championship takes more than one team and for us this season it’s a huge fillip.

“Someone said to me that it can be a one-in-10-year opportunity. We’ve been growing over the last six or seven years to get to this position and we’ve probably been successful a little ahead of time.

“This is definitely not something that’s just happened in this particular year. This has been something the Stingrays have been purposely building for over a long period of time. It’s fantastic to see.”

After going down 3-0 in the under-12 clash with Blacktown, the Stingrays drew 0-0 in the under-14 game before claiming maximum points with a 2-1 win in the under-16 division.

Illawarra’s reserve grade side then prevailed 3-0 before the first grade team clinched the club championship with an 8-0 rout of the Spartans.

Jess Cooper and Kim Bonilla each grabbed a hat-trick for the Stingrays in first grade, while captain Michelle Carney also scored and teenager Natalie Henderson got on the scoresheet in just her second appearance in the top grade.

Illawarra led 2-0 at half-time after goals to Cooper and Bonilla before cutting loose in the second half.

Henderson, 16, made no mistake with her 80th-minute penalty to complete the visitors’ scoring spree.

Illawarra finished third on the ladder and will take on Sydney University in this Sunday’s qualifying semi-final. The Stingrays lost twice to Sydney Uni during the season and are keen for revenge.

The winners will meet minor premiers Macarthur in the following week’s major semi-final.

“We look to almost play a mini-season now and we’re definitely looking forward to this weekend,” Marsh said.

“The girls are feeling a sense of unfinished business from a couple of games during the season where we felt we should’ve done better than we did. We’ve got an opportunity to correct some of that, this weekend in particular, and hopefully if we get through that first round then we’re certainly in a position to get to the grand final again.

“I think at the end of the day it’s who laughs loudest at the end. Hopefully it will be us.”

Four Stingrays teams have qualified for various finals series, including the under-14 and under-16 teams, reserve grade and first grade. Illawarra’s under-16 side became the club’s first junior team to finish a season on top of the table. Reserve grade finished fifth and will face Manly in the elimination semi-final, while the under-14 Stingrays were third and will play Blacktown in the qualifying semi-final.

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