Football South Australia to crown an unexpected WNPL champion
The Adelaide Comets dominated most of the 2023 WNPL SA season. But after going out in straight sets in the Finals Series, the two sides that defeated them, Salisbury Inter and FSA NTC, will now face off for a crown that was likely not on their horizon when the campaign started.
Football South Australia's NTC side and Salisbury Inter will battle for the WNPL SA Championship on Saturday. (Adam Butler/@8zerokms)
Salisbury Inter became the first club to reach the WNPL SA Grand Final. That alone was a seismic statement in the league's landscape. Inter defeated the Adelaide Comets, a side they finished 14 points behind on the regular season table, by two goals to seal their Grand Final ticket.
Tony Scalzi's team had been a thorn in the Comets' side from the start of the season, defeating Tom Monsigneur's team in the Pre-Season Cup Final before inflicting their first loss in Round 6 of the WNPL. The premiership-winning Comets turned the tide by winning the second regular season encounter between the two sides and the WNPL & WSL Cup Final. But they had their spot in the Grand Final snatched by Salisbury through goals to Jasmine Styles and Roxy Dodd.
After winning the treble in 2021, Salisbury Inter went through a vast squad turnover, and speaking to Front Page Football in the lead-up to her side's WNPL & WSL Cup Final against Comets, club co-captain Nicole Calder acknowledged that fact. At that time, she maintained the expectation of playing in the Finals Series and that playing off for silverware was a bonus.
"I think we were realistic with where we wanted to be; we wanted to make Finals; I don’t think we set out to win the treble again or anything like that," Calder shared.
"We lost a couple of players from last year. Since the treble, we have had a little bit of turnover, and I think that anytime you have that much turnover, you have to be realistic about where you can go. But there was never a doubt that we wouldn’t make finals."
Salisbury Inter players celebrate Roxy Dodd's goal against Comets, which ultimately sealed their ticket to the 2023 WNPL SA Grand Final. (Adam Butler/@8zerokms)
Inter made the 2023 Grand Final despite the turnover, and there they will meet FSA NTC, the other side they defeated in the Finals Series. Salisbury earned the right to play the Adelaide Comets for a Grand Final spot after defeating Michele Lastella's side 1-0 through a Haruna Sugihara goal. Despite the disappointment, NTC set off on a thrilling Finals Series run.
The State Program came up against Adelaide City, who entered the clash off the back of a dominant victory over rivals West Adelaide. A tight contest went to extra time after a dramatic injury-time period saw NTC open the scoring in the 95th minute through Hayley Wellington before City's Emily Gale equalised a minute later. Astonishingly, after a penalty shootout that saw referee Curtis Woodworth order multiple retakes for infractions, NTC won their first-ever final, thus booking a meeting with premiers Adelaide Comets for a spot in the Grand Final. Both sides were keen to exact revenge on Inter and have a shot at the championship.
Despite finishing second in the regular season, NTC entered the clash as overwhelming underdogs, having been convincingly beaten by the Comets 2-0 in both 2023 encounters. This clash mirrored the NTC-Adelaide City match, and once again, Lastella's side took a late lead through Stella Wieczorek before Georgie Nicola equalised for the premiers, sending the game to extra time.
In that period, a bit of fortune saw Wieczorek again give NTC the lead before Comets star Chrissy Panagaris sent the match to penalties. Reaching that stage alone was an accomplishment for a young and inexperienced NTC side against arguably the best team in the regular season. But the achievements did not stop there, with the underdogs stunning the premiers with a perfect record from the spot to book a ticket to their first Grand Final.
This outcome is even more exceptional when you consider the turnover-heavy nature of the NTC program, which saw the side lose almost an entire starting XI worth of players in the lead-up to the 2023 season. The writing was on the wall about the emerging talent, with the NTC Reserves reaching their WNPL & WSL Cup Final in 2023. But even Lastella admitted he was expecting some growing pains this year when he spoke to FPF on the eve of the Finals Series.
"I think if you were to ask me before this season how we were going to go, I would have said that we would be mid-table if not towards the bottom half because we had a lot of younger girls come in our team, we promoted like nine players, and we lost Emilia Murray to the Future Matildas program as well," the NTC Head Coach shared.
"If you were to ask me a bit earlier in the year, I was a bit concerned, to be honest. But they (the players) have performed really well, and we have a quality group of young players."
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Abby Middleton celebrates firing the FSA NTC Women to their first-ever Grand Final, knocking out premiers Adelaide Comets in the process. (Adam Butler/@8zerokms)
Salisbury Inter and FSA NTC viewed season 2023 as a building block, but now both sides are on the precipice of greatness, and it has been tight between the two sides all year. NTC finished four points above Inter, with only one more goal scored and one less conceded. But the glaring statistic is that Lastella's side was victorious on both occasions in the regular season, scoring six goals across the two encounters.
The roles reversed significantly when the two teams faced off in the Finals Series. Salisbury claimed their first win over NTC in 2023, and they achieved it by scoring only once and keeping a clean sheet.
While the partnership of co-captains Nicole Calder and Chantelle Ryder in defence is vital for Inter to succeed on Saturday, Scalzi's side has shown a threat in attack. Dodd (10) and Haruna Sugihara (8) combined to score over half of Salisbury's 35 league goals in 2023, and with set-piece threat Calder (7), they will be looking to hurt an inexperienced NTC side every time they go forward.
Meanwhile, despite scoring one more goal in the 18-round regular season than Inter, NTC has shared the load evenly across their squad. Camila Madriz Figueroa and Claire Scarpin were the team's top goal scorers this regular season, with five goals each. But teammate Stella Wieczorek surpassed both with her brace against Adelaide Comets in their last Finals outing.
While NTC is searching for their first senior crown, some of the Salisbury Inter squad know well what it is like to be at the top, having won a treble in 2021. Both teams may not have expected to be competing for a championship in 2023. But now they are there, and they will be desperate to make the most of their well-deserved opportunities earned by defeating an Adelaide Comets juggernaut that looked unstoppable for parts of the season.
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