Slice of Cheese

The Year of the Zebra

2017 was a year of unprecedented success for the Hobart Zebras Women’s team, as they went the entire calendar year undefeated on route to the treble. It was a remarkable rise for a side that finished in fourth place in the Southern Championship in 2016, as they raised the bar to new heights and swept all before them winning 27 and drawing just once in 28 competitive games.

The project began late in 2016, when Chris Hey, overlooked for the club’s NPL job in favour of Peter Savill, was convinced to take the Women’s job at the suggestion of Zebras captain Mady O’Brien.

Hey suggested he was initially hesitant to take on the role and said he wasn’t initially sure he would enjoy it but quickly took to the position and has since signed on for the 2018 season

“I’ve enjoyed this year, I didn’t know if I would initially and it’s not just because of the results, but because of the group we have.  The players are tremendous. It’s interesting coaching women rather than the men, the game is completely different and it took me a little bit of time to adjust to that, but the big difference for me with the women is that they want to listen and want to learn and sometimes you don’t get that with the men. And the girls have responded well. The first thing I said was that I am here to coach footballers and the response was good, so the first meeting was a positive and we moved forward from there.”

Chris Hey took the role at the suggestion of Captain Mady O’Brien- Solstice Photography

It was an apprehension shared by the players according to O’Brien

“I think the first time we found out Chris was appointed coach we were a bit hesitant because of how he coaches, we knew he could be quite strict at times but we were looking forward to it. From the first session he was tough on us and we expected that.”

After a tough pre season the side began their 2017 campaign with the Summer Cup where they opened up with an 8-2 win over a young South Hobart side. Second up they would meet a Taroona team who had just dispatched Olympia 5-3 in what was their first major test of the season. Zebras would win comfortably, claiming a 3-0 result against the side they would go on to meet again in the final. After rolling past Clarence 5-0 they entered the final filled with confidence but it was a much sharper Pirates outfit that awaited them. In a game that ebbed and flowed, a moment of pure inspiration from Kayla Mason proved the difference as Zebras defeated Taroona 2-1 to claim the Summer Cup. With just five minutes remaining and the score locked at 1-1, the Zebra’s midfielder conjured up a sublime first time chip from 25 yards out that lobbed the keeper to win the game for her side.  It was a fitting reward for a player who had done a fine man marking role, negating the influence of the dangerous Adelyn Ayton as she showed the versatility that would make her such an asset in 2017. Moves to centre back and full back would follow but the one constant was Mason’s tenacious play and consistent output wherever she was deployed.

Mason scored a spectacular winner in the Summer Cup- Solstice Photography

They may have claimed the Summer Cup but Hey found himself with a real selection headache. In Berry, Burt, O’Brien, Bowden and now Mason he had a plethora of options to play centrally. The solution was to move O’Brien to centre half, where she would go on to dominate and lead a defence that yielded just 14 goals for the season. Hey explained

“I felt that probably our Achilles heel was through our back line and one thing that Mady brings to the game is her organisational skills and talking. I knew she had played there before, she had represented the state at youth and senior level in that position and I thought it would be a calming influence for us.”

A calming influence it certainly proved as the Zebras picked up where they left off when the Super League season commenced. After comfortably accounting for Clarence on opening night a rematch with Taroona loomed in round 2 and again it was thriller. On this occasion it was Danielle Kannegiesser who was the hero, scoring a superb hat-trick including a fine left footed curler from distance as they rallied from 2-1 down to claim a 3-2 win. Those fight backs were the hallmark of the side, they weren’t always the best team in those 28 games but they would just continue to find ways to win games. Kannegiesser would go on to be the sides top scorer and along with Berry and Nichol offers a consistent avenue to goal.

Kannegiesser was the sides leading scorer- Solstice Photography

Yet for all their early season form, Olympia were still considered the favourites to defend their league title. The Warriors had been the benchmark in women’s football and they entered the sides round 3 match up looking to reassert themselves as top dogs. What followed was a result that suggested a major power shift was underway. A 5-1 smack down at Warrior Park in favour of the Zebras proved that they were indeed the real deal in 2017. This was the point that the Zebras players began to believe according to O’Brien.

“It was very important for us, we knew going into it was going to be a massive game. To me it felt more like a final, we went out knowing it was going to be really hard. As soon as we stepped onto that field it was just 100 miles and hour, you couldn’t think, you couldn’t say anything, everyone was switched on, it was just so tough out there. We knew they were going to be our biggest rivals this year. After that win we knew that we could do anything. If we were to put our minds to it.”

The Zebras win over Olympia was a massive statement- Solstice Photography

The big games just kept on coming and having vanquished the Warriors they then hosted a Launceston City side that had won their opening three games by a combined margin of 19 goals. It mattered not, as a 3-1 win for Zebras moved them clear on top as they once again came from behind, this time after trailing 1-0 at half time. Victories over Kingborough, University and Taroona followed as they hit the road for the first time, travelling up to take on City on their own turf in Round 8. How the Zebras walked away from this game with three points is mystifying. A combination of defensive commitment, a Shelley Cook masterclass and I presume some sort of voodoo magic saw them somehow holding out against an absolute onslaught in the second half to walk away with a 1-0 win.

As their Assistant Coach Adam Powell put it when assessing the side season.

“I feel there were some games which we didn’t deserve to win, but we did. That’s the sign of a good team, when you can actually get a result when you’re not playing at your best.”

Another day they weren’t at their best came in Round 10 against Ulverstone. Leading 2-1 at half time the game had been scrappy but Ulverstone were pushing them hard and on looked more than capable of walking away with points. Enter Allie Berry, who smashed in a second half hat-trick in eye catching fashion to power them to a 7-1 win. Whilst she had her moments in the early part of the season playing in the front 3, it was after moving back into a deeper midfield role that Zebras saw the best of Berry. She would go on to chalk up 18 goals for the season and provided a tremendous drive from the midfield that complimented the metronomic pair of Burt and Bowden. The three B’s in the middle allowed them to seize control of games and unlock defences that were increasingly parked deep against them as the season wore on.

With 18 goals from midfield Berry was one of the stars of the competition in 2017- Solstice Photography

Undefeated in the league at the halfway mark, attention then turned to the Statewide Cup. A favourable draw had seen them avoid their title rivals and they would meet Launceston City in the final. If it had been the Zebras attacking players that had stood out in the league, this was a day dominated by defence. Mady O’Brien was outstanding as was Monique Undy, as again the Zebras thwarted a City side who were the only team all season who would get the better of their midfield. They had the better of the play for large periods of time but they simply couldn’t solve the Zebras rearguard. Youngster Laura Spandler once again showed she is a player for the big occasion by scoring the lone goal, having also scored in the Summer Cup final.

Zebras made 2/2 with a Statewide Cup Triumph- Solstice Photography

Having made it 2 from 2 they then went on to take a giant step towards a treble as they downed Olympia in their highly anticipated showdown with the Warriors on a Friday night at KGV. Olympia had remained hot on their heels and not dropped points to anyone else. Furthermore they had bolstered their squad with a new pair of Japanese imports and Rani Cavaretta. A win would send them back on top and when Lucy Johnson capped a dominant opening 15 minutes for her side with a superb free kick, the Warriors seemed well on the way to doing just that. There is a strong case to be made that Olympia, not Zebras, had the most talented side in the Super League this season. But they were not the team that the Zebras were and the collective effort and tactical nous of Zebras shone through most brightly on this Friday night, reinforcing that age old adage that a champion team will always triumph over the team of champions. Just as it had at the first time of meeting, a furious forward press from the Zebras would overwhelm the Warriors. Few attackers are better exponents of winning the ball back than the crafty Zoe Nichols and she won a penalty which Alyssa Bowden dispatched to tie things up at 1-1. Captain and once again the best player on the pitch in a big game for her side, Mady O’Brien then chipped the keeper with a free kick to send the Zebras into the sheds with a 2-1 lead which they sat on for most the second half. Allie Berry then made sure of the points to seal a 3-1 win and put her side two games clear on top. With Olympia ultimately failing to maintain two teams and having to forfeit the third and final meeting, this was the night that the Super League was won. From here the Zebras would not look back.

Zoe Nichols was a major factor in both Zebras wins over Olympia- Solstice Photography

From that point on, the new carrot in sight was the perfect season, could they go all the way and win every single match in 2017? The closer they got to the finish line the more realistic that became and O’Brien admitted that complacency was something the side had to battle with given the dominant nature of so many of their victories.

“At times it was difficult.. we would go into half time having not played at our best, we did it quite regularly, some of those games we didn’t show up till quite late, I think sometimes we went into games a little too positive… maybe some of the players went into some games thinking it would be an easy win.”

But they continued to find a way as the winning streak hit 24 games and they moved within a point of the title. At Buckby Landrover Park in Round 18 that dream would come to an end as their winning streak was finally brought to an end. Still, if you going to have a set a back, having it come in the form of a 1-1 draw away at the second place side to officially seal the Super League title is a pretty good way to do it. The title was now officially theirs and whilst the perfect season was out of reach, an undefeated 2017 remained on the cards.

The Zebras sealed the treble with a draw against Launceston City- Solstice Photography

That left them with three games to avoid tarnishing their record. Fittingly there would be one final tight tussle with Taroona. Their games had been arm wrestles all year and they encapsulated the Zebras season perfectly. They were not always the best side on the day, but they always found a way to come out on top when the final whistle blew. This was no exception, a last gasp Kannegiesser goal sealing a 1-0 win and clearing the toughest remaining obstacle in their way of the unbeaten season. There was to be no resting on laurels though, ever the disciplinarian when five players broke team rules the night before their penultimate game against University, Chris Hey promptly dropped them to the bench and started the game with 10 players. Even with the treble assured, there was to be no slipping of standards permitted under his watch. A week later, the final whistle blew at Ulverstone to bring an end to the remarkable campaign with a 4-0 win, a year of dominance that will down in the history books, 27 wins, 1 draw 0 losses.

“It all comes down to just the commitment of the girls and the squad that we had,” said Zebras’ assistant coach, Adam Powell.

“Nine months ago, it wasn’t in our wildest dreams that we’d be where we are, but we had no doubt that with the girls we had that we could win. But, how we won it, going undefeated, wasn’t in our wildest dreams.”

With the coaching team signed on for 2018 and playing group indicating their desire to go around again, the test now will be whether they can maintain the hunger that drove them this year. They will enter the season no longer as the hunter, but as the hunted. Yet regardless of how it all shakes out, 2017 will go down in the record books as the Year of the Zebra.

Champions, the Zebras claimed their historic treble- Solstice Photography