Ravens burn brightly in balmy Bathurst

The Gladesville Ravens Girls Youth League Division 1 Under 16s team for 2023 gave a positive account of themselves in the Proctor Cup this weekend, a pre-season tournament in Bathurst where youth teams test their pre-season credentials against each other in preparation for the new season. Ravens boasted a strong squad, and paired with fellow GYL1 team Blacktown Spartans, they would go into battle with Lindfield, South Coast Flame and Hills United, all familiar opponents over the years. Blistering hot conditions were masked by a swirling breeze, and this weekend of top-level football would conclude with beaming faces and deep sleep on the way back to Sydney to face the school week.

Ravens assembled ahead of their Saturday morning kick-off against Lindfield in manager Rick’s majestic tent city and used the expansive warm-up area to formulate a plan for game one. Back-to-back games across all age groups had been going on at Proctor Park since 7.30am and Ravens would need to hit the ground running.

The Ravens’ lack of practice on grass meant that the first few moments of the first 17-minute half saw the black and whites figuring out the bobbly surface and negotiating the lush grass in an attempt to play their usual brand of flowing football. A poor clearance from the Lindfield goalkeeper was picked up by Alexia Mavraidis and she flashed a cross in front of striker Maya Jones who just couldn’t connect.

A goal was soon to come though. A through-ball was cleared for a corner and when Alessia Rizzuto aimed the corner at the near post, the goalkeeper palmed away the dangerous ball and Jones was on hand to lift a shot into the net for an unconventional finish.

Gladesville had to be switched on at the back as Lindfield threatened, Aurelia Smith snuffing out the danger when a through ball almost caught them square. It was all about the attack though in the first half, and Sophia Grindlay won the ball on the touchline and drilled in a cross that Jones and the Lindfield keeper both went for, the ball rolling through for a goalkick.

When Rizzuto picked up a ball in midfield, she was encouraged to advance into the space in front of her. There was only one thing on her mind as she let fly from outside the area and the ball seared into the net for a fabulous second goal. This was no more than the Ravens deserved, and they were looking for more goals as the half came to a close.

A feature of Ravens’ performances last season was the slow start to each half, and this was again the case, even though they were now shooting downhill. After a period of midfield tussling, Rizzuto teased in a corner that striker Monique Lekkas met square on the head and the ball only just cleared the cross bar.

Ravens goalkeeper Chloe McCredie found the grass a little too long as her short goal kick held up in the turf, but Abby Duggan was quick to intercept and set the black and whites away on the attack again. The midfield was where the battles were being won and lost, and Lindfield were putting up a great fight. Playing out from the back was always looking risky and from one such move, a tackle on the Lindfield left led to a powerful shot that McCredie had to throw herself at athletically to push the ball behind for a corner.

A period of good possession from Lindfield saw them playing neat triangles to advance up the left, but Ravens were resolute and when they pressed again, a mistake forced a corner. Rizzuto again lifted the ball in expertly; the ball was recycled to Lekkas who took aim and smashed a shot from distance off the bar, a thrilling moment for the spectators that grew a big roar from the sidelines. Lekkas was not to be denied though, and Rizzuto fed the pacy striker who advanced on goal and smashed home a shot into the top corner for a third Ravens goal.

The clean sheet was confirmed as McCredie smothered a dangerous free kick from Lindfield and the final whistle sounded to bring a dominant Ravens performance to a close. Three important points to start the day, and a confident display from many players across the park.

We would have to wait over an hour for game two, but it was upon us before we knew it. With the backdrop of Mount Panorama, the big clash of the day matched up the Ravens with Blacktown Spartans, traditionally one of the more athletic and physically strong teams in the top division of NSW Girls Youth football. This would be a great test for the new-look Ravens, and with the wind swirling around Proctor Park, they would need to be switched on to contain their opponents.

It was clear that whichever team mastered the conditions first would come out on top here, and the bumpy field and blustery wind was far from the comforts of ELS Hall and Christie Park. Ravens couldn’t get any touches on the ball and every attempt to maintain possession saw a Spartans player right on their toes. It was no surprise then when a long cross from the Blacktown left wasn’t dealt with and the lively striker was left with a comfortable finish to open the scoring early in the half. Mavraidis was full of running up the left, but fired behind when she couldn’t find another option.

Goalkeeper Jemma Horley had to be alert when a snapshot from the corner of the box flew past the left-hand post, and Blacktown were wasteful from a free-kick on the edge of the area, the wild shot sailing high and wide. Spartans were dominating, and made Ravens work to maintain possession, the ball spending a lot of time in touch and there was a lot of throw-in practice as the breeze kept the ball pinned to the left-hand side.

The last moments of the half were exciting; Mavraidis outpaced her defender and fired in a shot that hit the post and went behind. Soon after, with half time looming, Mavraidis was outmuscled and sent to the ground in obvious discomfort, eventually leaving the field just before the whistle sounded. Ravens behind in this one, and perhaps deservedly so.

The second half was one-way traffic and Ravens struggled to get any possession up the field. A glorious chance up the Spartans right saw the ball blazed over when the striker should have done better. A free kick in a dangerous position was wasted again, fired straight into the black and white wall, and a long-range speculator found its home in the neighbouring field. The Spartans were in no rush, happy with their lead, but with the Ravens hesitant to clear a cross, Horley had to make a smart save to keep the score at 1-0.

Horley misdirected a goal kick that was sent back in with venom but the ball bounced over and Ravens survived. And survival was the aim as a break down the left was smartly saved by the Ravens shot-stopper, before the Spartans striker found herself unmarked from a deep cross, central to goal, but managed to find the paddock again with a vicious shot that ate up more time while a new ball was sourced.

A game that could have ended in a heavier defeat came to a close with a slender 1-0 reverse; it wasn’t pretty, the lack of control of the bouncing ball from both sides made this a difficult watch for everyone. There were positives to be had from such a game, the support from Stef Lakic on the right whenever Ravens attacked, the persistence of Angelina Zalter and Anika Watson in midfield and the vision of Lara Green as she tried to conjure up something from nothing.

Day one had come to an end for the Under 16s, but the football was to continue at Proctor Park until daylight waned. Coach Dali remained positive, assuring the girls that they had shown fight in difficult conditions against a quality opposition. We would look forward to the Sunday games with one eye on the other two groups, only the best third-place team joining the three group winners in the semi-finals.

Refreshed and reinvigorated after an early night, the next opponent for Sunday morning was South Coast Flame. The Ravens had enjoyed two close encounters with the Wollongong club last season and this would be another good test to see how the Ravens could deal with the same field under the same conditions as yesterday’s defeat to Blacktown.

Ravens looked lively early on, ready to pounce, and a good run by Jones was pulled back for Green to smash in a shot that was blocked. The familiar combination, Rizzuto to Mavraidis, led to a cross that Green volleyed just wide. At the other end, Horley was quick off her line to foil the striker, who had been given way too much time to turn and run on goal.

Green was again instrumental in setting Jones away, but her half-volley from distance was easily fielded by the South Coast goalkeeper. Great battling from Jones then gave Sylvie Karena the opportunity to turn her defender, and she rifled in a shot that was well saved. Rizzuto then fed Mavraidis down the right again, but the cross was cleared under pressure from Jones. Half-time and the scores locked at 0-0, one moment of brilliance could tip the scales in the second half.

The second period gave the spectators plenty of food for thought for the season ahead. Some wayward passing up the left saw Flame break and a shot was smashed off the bar with Horley well beaten. Ravens were anonymous in attack, and were relying on raids down both wings to try and open up the South Coast defence.

Sinead Fisher found herself in advanced positions down the left, but she was expertly marshalled by her flame-haired marker and the ball wouldn’t break Ravens’ way in front of goal. Rizzuto made good progress up the right and her cross was palmed away by the South Coast goalkeeper. Anna Wroughton was quickly onto the scene to try and turn in the rebound, but the ball wouldn’t fall for her, and the chance was smothered by the tenacious Flame defence.

There were no complaints about the final score when the whistle blew for full time. Ravens were unlikely now to advance to the latter stages of the competition, barring an unusual set of results elsewhere, and they had very little to offer offensively against a team that should have been there for the taking.

A fantastic match-up to complete the Proctor Cup paired Ravens with Hills United, one of the quality teams from last season, and a club that was so unlucky to miss out on promotion themselves to NPL1. Familiar faces in former Ravens youth players Ella Moar and Issy Franks were keen to make a statement, while the Ravens would cling to the outside chance of making the semi-finals with a win.

Back on a smoother field and away from the wind, Ravens could try and go out with a dominant performance, and they were on the attack from the opening whistle. Mavraidis romped through early in the game and screwed a shot wide, but Hills were not going to roll over, and they went straight up the other end. A dangerous cross from ther right after a dynamic run down the wing was swept just past McCredie’s post. There was confusion soon after as everyone left a through ball to each other and Smith had to be quick to intercept and make the clearance. Just as Hills were starting to turn the screw, there was a moment that no football fan likes to see. Lekkas picked up the ball in midfield and let rip from long distance; the goalkeeper got down to make a routine save, but the ball went through her hands and then under her legs and rolled into the empty net. It’s a curse that has befallen many a top-flight goalkeeper over the years, but to her credit, the Hills goalkeeper brushed it off and didn’t dwell on her obvious misfortune.

Hills continued to cause problems up their right, and a free kick awarded for a high foot was deflected behind for a corner. In came the cross, which fell for a Hills midfielder, but the shot was deflected and McCredie got down well to save. The half-time break was upon us, and the players took refuge in the dugouts to escape the unrelenting sun.

The second half began with a heart-stopping moment as a ball across the face of goal almost caught out the Ravens, but Sienna Bell was there to make a timely interception. Hills were dominating and Ravens couldn’t get the ball out of their half.

A corner from the left was crossed into a dangerous position and the ball ricocheted around the penalty area before a long-range effort was expertly saved by McCredie. Hills forced a number of corners, one after the other, and the game looked to be there for the taking. Up the other end, a Rizzuto shot from long range was well saved by the Hills goalkeeper, as Ravens reminded their opponents that they were not restricted to defensive duties in the second half.

The final whistle brought to and end a marvellous two days of football for our Under 16 Girls Youth League team. There was little time to dwell on the game, as the Under 15s were kicking off in their do-or-die quarter-final against local rivals Spirit FC in the next game and the Under 16s would provide the cheer squad. The games continued to come thick and fast at Proctor Park, but for the Under 16s, the weekend was over. An exploding car in the car park provided a fitting crescendo to an intensely hot day of football, as the players headed for their cars ready to snooze all the way to Sydney.

This weekend proved to be an important stepping stone for Gladesville Ravens ahead of the 2023 season. We farewell striking sensation Monique Lekkas who has sealed a glamour move to the Under 18s, and the coaching staff have had time to assess their squad across four very different games against four opponents of varying skill and stature. Gladesville Ravens can be proud of their efforts this weekend, and the signs are bright coming into the new footballing year.

A huge thank you to manager Rick for his logistical organisation of the weekend; we’re in good hands this season.

Did you know? Texi Smith is a published author of football fiction. His fourth book, Anna Black – This Girl Can Play, is the first novel to delve into the world of women’s football in Australia and would be the ideal read for our future Matildas. What’s more, our hero starts her career at Gladesville Ravens. With the focus on the Women’s World Cup in 2023, this story will get you excited to see the world arrive on our doorstep in July. Get your copy now – from Fair Play Publishing or from the author himself.

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