South East is the current king of the state after taking out the 2022 Think! Road Safety SA Country Championships title in unforgettable fashion at Whyalla on Sunday.
The sunny Sunday afternoon at Bennett Oval will forever be remembered fondly by those in the Limestone Coast as the region’s top players bonded together to beat Central by a single point in a nail-biting grand final.
It is the red, white and black team’s fourth title, adding to the triumphs of 2014, 16 and 17, but this one felt different.
Those wins all came with assistance from the River Murray Football League, but after the region switched to the Eastern zone, the South East boys were all on their own in 2022 and thrived on the added responsibility.
The grand final was an instant classic with South East and the previously undefeated Central going toe to toe across the four quarters.
Initially it was a power struggle after it took eight minutes for the first goal to be scored off the boot of South Gambier’s Brayden Kain.
The chance was set up by a fierce tackle from vice captain Tom Whittlesea and a pinpoint pass by Naracoorte star Matt Willson, whose class stood out all weekend.
After South East continued to press hard for the remainder of the quarter, it went into the first break with a commanding 22-6 lead.
But Central was not going to go down without a fight and within 10 minutes the side had cut down the lead to just two points.
After a brief rain shower at half time, Kain continued to be a dominant presence around the goal square and his three goals boosted South East to a 13-point lead.
However, the win was no certainty and Central went on the attack with the scoring end.
As South East could not find the big sticks, the rivals pressed hard and the composed Ben Edwards sunk a set shot to bring the difference on the scoreboard back to a solitary point.
With only a minute left on the clock and all the momentum behind Central, South East had to defend with all its life.
Fortunately the red, white and black team was able to boot the ball forward thanks to the timely clearance created by the gutsy Lawry Bradley-Brown, who managed to kick the Sherrin clear of danger in the process of being tackled.
In another crucial passage of play Andrew Stone and Todd Lockwood used their leg speed to gain another inside 50 before Lochie Eats created a stoppage to kill the clock.
This ensured South East locked up the ball at the safest part of the ground in the most dangerous period of the game and before the umpire could recommence play following the second stoppage, the final siren confirmed the remarkable result.
The victorious campaign did not get off to a perfect start in the opening game against Eastern on Saturday morning.
It was a fitting fixture with South East coming up against their former teammates from the Murray River at the first time of asking and neither wanted to back down.
The electric contest was a goal-for-goal shootout and the likes of Eats and Willson did their best to emerge on top with two majors each.
However, their efforts were not enough as a three-goal haul to Samuel De Michele pushed Eastern over the line by seven points.
Starting well was vital in the cut-throat competition, so the first-up loss was a massive blow to South East’s victory hopes.
However, they were not prepared to give up and put in a mighty performance against Northern which paved the way to the decider.
The likes of Whittlesea, Kain and Todd Lockwood were at their imposing best in the forward line and made the most of nearly every chance that came their way.
They did the damage on the scoreboard as Mark Marriott, Willson, Lochie Eats and Todd Reid all did their bit further up the ground.
Even though Shane Ballantyne and Marko Tansell did their best to keep Northern in the fight, the red and white side was blown away by South East.
The 33-point win was the biggest of the group stage and enough to propel South East into the top two with the highest percentage of the five teams who finished the group stage with a 1-1 record.
Although South East was the underdog coming up against an undefeated Central, nothing was going to come in the way of the team taking home the ultimate prize.
Many of the victorious team’s individual performances across the competition were recognised with six South East stars named in the team of the championships including Brad Bryant, Whittlesea, Marriott, Jacob Eats and Pat Davies.
Lots of the applause was saved for Willson, whose silky work through the midfield wowed onlookers as he was awarded with the Don McSweeny Medal as the stand-out player of the championships.
The efforts of South East coach Jack Kelly in his first time overseeing a team at the carnival was not lost on the selectors either.
Kelly received the Bill Murdoch Medal as the coach of the championships to give the South East boys even more reasons to celebrate a dream weekend.