AN eight-year dream came true for a group of Latrobe Valley mates who claimed a drought-breaking Victorian Country Volleyball Championships win in Warrnambool yesterday.
After coming within two points of missing yesterday’s final in a dramatic five-set qualifer on Sunday night, Latrobe Valley upset hot favourite Bendigo in another epic five-setter at Warrnambool Stadium.
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A spike to the floor by Latrobe Valley centre blocker Ash Vogt that found a gap in Bendigo’s defence ended the match but started big celebrations for the side that trekked 410 kilometres from the east of the state for the annual championships.
It was Latrobe Valley’s first men’s division one country championships victory in 16 years and the association’s fifth in the tournament’s 42-year history.
Playing coach Jacob Gruis was overwhelmed after Latrobe Valley’s 28-26, 25-20, 23-25, 21-25, 15-9 triumph.
“It’s just amazing,” he said.
“Most of the boys started our journey about eight years ago and we’ve been working flat out for this.
“A lot of the guys have been training three and four nights a week and we needed to do that to make that next step up to compete with sides like this.”
After years of losing talented players to Melbourne, the association entered a side in the Victorian State League competition and despite enduring heavy losses at times, retained players.
While state league success was part of the plan, country championships — the sports pinnacle for regional associations — was the ultimate goal.
Gruis, star spiker Aaron Magnusson, setter Jacob Lindgren and hitter Andrew Burgess were among sides that went through consecutive country championships campaigns without a win in 2004 and 2005 and just one in 2006. “It’s pretty amazing,” Gruis said of the winning feeling.
“It’s undescribable. It’s been a bloody long time.”
Latrobe Valley was 13-9 down in the fifth set of Sunday night’s semi-final with Horsham but staged a dramatic comeback to win the decider 15-13.
Gruis said that victory gave his side enormous belief heading into the final against the undefeated Bendigo, which was aiming for its fifth consecutive crown.
After winning the first two sets with power hitting and strong defence, Latrobe Valley looked on course for a boilover.
But after struggling defensively, Bendigo improved its blocking and stormed back into the match after looking gone at 18-21 down in the third. Bendigo rallied to win the third and then claimed a psychological victory in the fourth, reeling off five consecutive points after Latrobe Valley netted a serve at 20-18 up, en route to a 25-21 result.
Bendigo coach Scott Ross said his players were disappointed they hadn’t been able to set a new record for the most consecutive number of wins, having to be content with equalling Geelong’s four between 1975 and 1978.
He lamented his side’s poor blocking technique early in the match and the impact of a heavy load across the weekend on his power hitter brother Jeremy, who battled a shoulder injury in the final.
Ross said with the bulk of his side 25 or under, Bendigo’s era at the top was far from over.
Latrobe Valley setter Lindgren, Bendigo power hitters Todd Broadbent and James Winzar and specialist passer Josh Gordon were named in the all-star side.