WEST Perth had to dig deep to overcome Swan Districts in Sunday's elimination final with coach Geoff Valentine proud of the Falcons' efforts and especially for Mitch Antonio to get reward for his perseverance.
The Falcons might have come into the finals just about as the form team of the competition having won nine of their last 11 matches to finish in fourth position to earn the rights to playing the elimination final at home against Swan Districts on Sunday.
But Swans were determined to make the most of their own first finals appearance since 2017 and had the better of the opening half to lead the Falcons by eight points at quarter-time and 14 points at the half-time break.
West Perth worked its way back into the contest during the third quarter and with three quick goals to open the last term, the Falcons were 16 points up and looked to be on track for the win on home soil in front of a good crowd of 3470.
Swan Districts wouldn’t go away, though, and kicked the next three goals to retake the lead before Rudy Riddoch and Lewis Jetta then traded goals for their respective teams.
The deciding goal would be kicked for West Perth through Mitch Antonio just seconds before the final siren with the Falcons winning by four points to advance to a first semi-final against Claremont this Sunday at Revo Fitness Stadium.
West Perth coach Geoff Valentine was just grateful his team was in front when the siren sounded.
"There was very little in it and I thought we were just pretty lucky to be in front when the siren went. There was a bit of back and forth there but thankfully we had our noses in front at the right time," Valentine told 91.3 SportFM.
"I thought perhaps in that third quarter our defensive efforts were a little better, and we had better shape behind the ball and didn’t leak as many goals as the first half.
"But we were never able to get some good flow in the game and that was to Swans' credit. It wasn’t until the last quarter when we could kick three in-a-row but against Swans kicked the next three and from there it was sort of goal to goal."
After Swan Districts kicked three straight goals midway through the last quarter to recapture the lead, their star midfielder Frank Anderson suffered a knee injury that delayed the game for five minutes as he got his way off the field
West Perth had possession and Valentine plays tribute for the set play his players ran to get the ball to Rudy Riddoch who was able to kick a spirit lifting goal from 50m out even though there was still a goal to come from either team.
"When you see that next play unfold, obviously it was a very crucial moment. You can see it unfold from the coaches' box but really it's out of your hands because you don't really have time to set anything up," Valentine said.
"But for the players to come up with that play during that bit of a break, they said they were keen to get the ball in the hands into either Trent Manzone or Blake Wilhelm from Delaporte, and try to get it to Rudy.
"Then once Rudy picked the footy up 55m out with a bit of grass in front of him, it was always likely to be a goal. To execute in that manner was absolutely fantastic by our boys."
Ultimately it was 24-year-old Mitch Antonio who proved the match winner for West Perth when in the dying stages he outmanoeuvred his opponent, took a strong mark and then went back to kick truly.
The siren then went once the ball was bounced back in the middle with West Perth winning by four points and Antonio proved the hero.
It's hard to imagine a more feel good story either. Antonio was a bright talent coming through the ranks at West Perth in the colts but it did appear for a while he lost his way with his football after an unfortunate incident with East Perth's Beau Chatley.
But Antonio has proven he can still be a difference maker this year with the Falcons and he lived out a dream on Sunday afternoon while breaking the hearts of the ever so brave Swan Districts in the process whose season is now over.
"It's a wonderful story of perseverance for Mitch. It's well documented that Beau Chatley and his family have had to endure, and Mitch and his family have been part of that so it hasn’t been an easy time for anyone since that incident," Valentine said.
"I think there was over 1000 days between Mitch's fifth league game of football and his sixth league game that came earlier on in the year. In that time, he won a couple of leading goal scorers in the twos but by his own admission his work rate in the gym and on the track wasn’t at the right level to play league footy.
"But he had a really strong pre-season for this year and he's seeing the fruits of that hard work now. To see him kick that winning goal and deliver in front of his family and friends was wonderful for him and everybody who has been part of that journey with him for the last few years."
One important player West Perth was without for the elimination final win was key defender Noah Pegoraro. He missed with a hamstring injury and Valentine would actually be surprised if he got up to play Claremont this Sunday.
"Noah is probably 50-50 now for next week. It wasn’t a bad hamstring, but enough of a tear there to keep him out even though it was on the lower end," Valentine said.
"Typically that's a 21-day injury but he has had a good run of it the last couple of years and hasn’t missed a game, but in his first year here he did have some repeat hamstring injuries.
"We probably have to be conservative with him given that history because if we get it wrong that will be season-ending for him. We'll get a better idea as the week unfolds but right now I'd see he's more unlikely than likely.
"Sam Rotham will hold his spot if that's the case and he was serviceable on Sunday even though we missed Pegs who is probably the best intercept mark in the competition. If he's there, then great but if he's not we'll get the job done and go forward from there."