It’s an occasion more than three years in the making.
After a frustrating run of three consecutive near misses in the state’s top flight, the Illawarra Stingrays will finally make their finals return this weekend.
The Rays will face-off in a sudden death elimination final against two-time defending premiers Sydney University at Cromer Park on Saturday.
The match is Illawarra’s first taste of finals football since 2013 after the club fell agonisingly short when finishing in fifth spot from 2014 to 2016.
Once considered as one of the most dangerous forces in the league, Illawarra were determined to reclaim their position back among the competition’s elite in 2017.
“It was definitely a target for the senior group to get back to the finals so it is great to achieve that,” stand-in coach Peter Dohnt said ahead of their showdown with University.
“We have been are looking good in recent games too.
“We have pulled some results in the last half of the season and have rallied well.
“We have went on a good run and could have probably picked up the minor premiership if it wasn’t for a few slip ups along the way.”
Illawarra’s finals return received a further boost with Matildas defender Caitlin Cooper set to take part in the match.
Cooper has been out for the past month as she helped the national team claim a memorable victory in the Tournament Of Nations.
“Getting Caitlin Cooper back from Matildas duty which is a massive in for us,” Dohnt said.
“With the experience she has had with the Matildas, it will be a boost.
“She has come back with a medal as well.”
Fellow Matilda Michelle Heyman is also set to continue her comeback from injury in the crunch encounter.
However in a blow for the Stingrays, they were robbed of the chance to hold the match at JJ Kelly Park.
Football NSW opted to move the game to a synthetic pitch to avoid the risk of a wash-out. Dohnt admitted it would be disappointing not to host the match on home soil, but knew his team couldn’t lose focus on the challenge in front of them.
“University are looking pretty strong,” he said.
“They have got some players back from injury. It is a shame that we can’t play it at home. They wanted all the matches to be on a synthetic pitch, and because we don’t have one down here yet, we have to play up there which is frustrating.”
Meanwhile, Manly United will meet Macarthur Rams on Sunday for a spot in the decider. The loser will play the winner of the elimination final.