For a grassroots, heart and soul community club like AJAX, what was achieved last Sunday in the 2023 VAFA divisional grand finals was truly the stuff of dreams, and certain to be an inspirational source of pride for years to come.
That morning, in front of many supporters at Elsternwick Park, the Jewish footy club’s only women’s team, the Jackettes, appeared in their first grand final since 2019.
They went on to defeat division 3 ladder leaders Powerhouse by 27 points, to deservedly earn their first premiership, after nine years of trying.
Just hours later in Coburg, a youthful AJAX men’s thirds division 4 team – that only entered the competition in round 5 when another team pulled out – continued their remarkable winning streak, upsetting minor premiers Old Scotch by 15 points, to claim a treasured flag – the second for AJAX in one day.
Jackettes coach Joe Nankin said winning a first title was the team’s goal since pre-season began last November, adding, “History has been made with these legends – it was an incredible performance.
“Togetherness, and toughness, have been our theme, and I know how much work the players have put in behind the scenes.
“They were relentless this season, and deserve all the praise and accolades that come their way.”
Like their back six have done all season, led by co-captain Justine Gabriel, the Jackettes were wall-like in defence in the decider, keeping their opponents goalless in the first two quarters, and scoreless in the crucial fourth quarter.
On each wing, Jess Shustin and Lydia Rainey also tackled hard, as did Jessica Marget.
While scoreless themselves in the first quarter, Jackettes midfielders Ellen Brophy, Julia Caplan and co-captain Annelise Caplan began to gain ascendency through clearances, servicing their forwards.
After some behinds, it was Caitlin Boylan – later named Best on Ground in the grand final – who scored the first goal just before half-time, from 35 metres out, instantly lifting her team’s spirits.
AJAX’s leading goalscorer, Lindi Nankin, scored the first two goals in the third quarter to extend the lead to 22, before a desperate Powerhouse side responded with their only two goals, to cut their deficit to 10.
Unfazed, the Jackettes went into the final break leading 31-15, thanks to Romy Klooger kicking a goal from a near impossible angle.
With Gypsy Folwell getting on top in the ruck, the Jackettes’ momentum continued, and when Kim Cobbe kicked a goal on the run – with her non-preferred left boot – it sealed the trophy, and an unforgettable 5.12 (42) to 2.3 (15) win.
By the final siren, the Jackettes had made an incredible 102 tackles, which Gabriel told The AJN proved crucial.
“We were renowned this season for our ability to apply pressure in defence, and clear the ball out,” she said.
“And in attack, we’re lucky to have very reliable forwards, like Lindi, who is so accurate, and Kim, who has a sixth sense for scoring goals.
“Another key strength of this team is our strong bond.
“When we had a mini mid-season form slump, we drew on our team spirit, and our sense of camaraderie went through the roof, and that’s what got us here.”
Gabriel described Mikaela Grek, who played her heart out in her final match, as “one of the most selfless players, and one of only a few Jackettes to play more than 100 games, including the first one nine years ago”.
“Winning our first flag is a huge achievement for women’s sport in our community, especially for young players to have a team to look up to.
“It’s still sinking in, and we’re all still getting messages and emails saying congratulations from so many people, including many we’ve never met – it’s unbelievable.”
In the men’s grand final win, the Jackas got off to the perfect start against Old Scotch, and led 22-0 at the first break.
They maintained that advantage in the second and third quarters, and held off fatigue, a mid-match injury toll, plenty of nerves and a late scoring spree by their opponents, to win by 9.10 (64) to 7.7 (49), against a side that had only lost one match all season.
Ethan Siegel, who won the medal for best player in the grand final, had an absolute blinder, Logan Siegel and Aron La Sala were everywhere, ruckman Tahl Marabel-Whitburn was dominant, and Jarred Fibishenko booted three goals.
Coach Adam Micmacher – who thanked his assistant coach Antony Klooger for his massive contribution – said that while they’ve been generally good starters, what he emphasised to his troops at quarter-time was the advantage it would give them to outscore Old Scotch in the second quarter, when kicking against the wind.
“That’s the challenge we set our guys, and they responded, kicking three second-quarter goals to two” Micmacher said.
“Tyler Southwick has been instrumental, as captain, in bringing this team together, and this premiership win is a credit to every one of the 65 players we utilised.
“From the club’s perspective, it also demonstrates we have a great football program.”
Southwick said the courage shown by his teammates in the fourth quarter was phenomenal, “as our reserves bench of six was down to one, cramp was setting in, and Justin Vogel and Andrew Joel got injured, so when the siren went and we won, it really was a ‘fall to the ground’ moment”.
“We just kept pushing and everyone played out of their skin.”
He added, “This thirds team was only formed at the start of the year, and it’s become a great offering for so many players who want to play for AJAX.
“As we only began in round five, we knew we had to win almost every remaining game, and we did.”
Club president Alida Lipton said, “The Jackettes players came to play and to win their first flag, and I’m hugely proud of everyone involved in that.”
“Since October 2022, coach Joe Nankin, Adam Micmacher as head of football operations and Vice President, and myself, met weekly to [implement strategies to] strengthen the playing numbers and boost the side.
“The girls joined the [club’s] pre-season training camp for the first time, trained with tackling coaching specialist Malcolm Banks, while Brian Goldberg joined for specialist coaching.
“And it all came together throughout the season, and especially on grand final day.”
“Everyone played their part, including team manager Mandy Caplan, and our medical team.”
Lipton described the men’s thirds division 4 win as “a Cinderella story … by a very special group of players, and coaches Adam and Antony.”
She said despite their first match being as late as round five, “The boys very quickly formed an amazing team atmosphere”.
“Week after week, they showed up, played, and got better and better.”
Lipton summed up the premiership wins by the Jackettes and the AJAX men’s thirds division 4 side as “two real success stories, and we are all still pinching ourselves!”