A week on from the Illawarra Premier League grand final seems as good of a time as ever to reflect on this year's campaign.
It was another captivating season of IPL action as Football South Coast navigated their way through its first full 22-round men's premiership since 2019, after the past couple of years were cut short by COVID and rain.
As we look towards the summer months, here are our top 10 IPL moments of 2023 (in no particular order):
It only seems right to start from the end - and who say this coming in 2023?
Anticipation was huge heading into the first ever grand final between rivals Coniston and Cringila last Sunday at WIN Stadium, and it was a match that lived up to the hype.
In a tight affair, Matt Floro proved the hero for Cono, finding the back of the net early in the second half as the JJ Kelly Park club claimed a 1-0 win to secure their first IPL top-grade premiership in 22 years.
"There's no better feeling than winning that grand final," Floro told the Mercury post-match.
"To us, Crini weren't favourites. We felt good coming in, we beat all of the top teams coming through. The boys believed and we knew that we could do it."
The scenes post-match were epic as Coniston fans erupted in delight, embracing their players before the party really kicked off in the WIN Stadium sheds.
Speaking of grand final day, not all of the action happened on the field last Sunday.
A number of flares were set off during the decider between Coniston and Cringila, leading to an orange haze drifting over WIN Stadium. At least one of these flares was thrown onto the field during the second half.
It's yet to be seen where any action will be taken against the offenders.
Just a fortnight earlier, there was wild celebrations in the Wetherall Park changerooms as Cringila claimed an incredible 3-2 win over Albion Park to book their spot in the Premier League decider.
The Lions had looked dead and buried, trailing 2-0 inside just seven minutes after being rocked by two super strikes from White Eagles star Cameron Morgan.
However, Crini refused to lay down, fighting tooth and nail for everything. They were eventually rewarded when Stefan Dimoski scored 10 minutes before halftime, and then captain Peter Simonoski then equalised around the one-hour mark.
Simonoski then produced the match-winning penalty in the 77th minute to lead Cringila to their first top-grade IPL grand final appearance in 29 years.
"It's unbelievable, I'm so proud of these boys," Simonoski told the Mercury post-match.
"We went down early 2-0, but we still had the belief and we kept fighting. We knew that if we could get one back, we were right back in this game, and you know what? We kept fighting until the end and we f---ing got the job done."
It wasn't exactly a cliffhanger, but Albion Park became newly-minted champions after trouncing Helensburgh 6-2 in August.
Heading into the third-last round of the 2023 regular season, Albion Park had accumulated 47 competition points and held a nine-point advantage over Cringila. However, if there was any lingering doubts, it was put to bed at Rex Jackson Oval, with Taiga Kitajima scoring four goals to set up the emphatic win.
The title victory capped a dream first season at the helm for head coach George Antoniou.
"It feels unbelievable, mate. It's been a long, tough year and I'm so proud of the boys and the club. It's really satisfying," Antoniou said.
"Where the club was last year, we just wanted to improve on last year and our goal was always semi-finals - and anything above that would be a bonus. But as the season went on, our goals changed a little bit and got a bit higher, and this was our target towards the end."
Bulli certainly had their moments in the sun this year, but not even the hardiest of their supporters could have seen this result coming.
A close result was predicted by many pundits when the Balls Paddock team come up against reigning grand-final winners Wollongong Olympic at PCYC in June.
It proved to be anything but, as captain Ben McDonald blasted home four goals to guide Bulli to a thumping 7-1 win. Lewis Grimshaw, Yuki Hashimoto and Deakin Brownlee also scored for the victors, while David Hartas mustered Olympic's sole goal.
"I'm a bit speechless to be honest," midfielder Sam Davis said post-game.
"Olympic are a very good team. It's not one of those games that you expect to be so dominant. We turned up today and I think throughout the year we've been putting in good performances, but the results just haven't gone our way.
"I think today shows how much effort we've been putting in and it's the reward finally. I don't think you ever expect to come and do such a good job."
Speaking of surprising results, this one came just weeks earlier when South Coast United secured a 2-1 victory over competition leaders Albion Park.
SCU had been underdogs heading into the clash at Ian McLennan Park. However, they took a 1-0 advantage inside 15 minutes when Advin Trebincevic scored. The White Eagles found an equaliser via Taiga Kitajima just after halftime, but James Brodnik's goal in the 54th minute proved the difference.
"It was a really big result, I'm very happy. We anticipated that it was going to be tough and it was," SCU head coach Greg Valic said post-game.
"During the week, we planned for them to play a back three, but they didn't. They played a back four so we had to change tactic mid-first half, and the boys were tactically superb.
"We took our chances and limited them to very few. They controlled the ball, but I think we controlled the game tactically."
Albion Park had plenty of impressive wins in 2023, but it's hard to go past their 4-1 win over Wollongong United in May as arguably the best of the lot.
New signing Joshua Macdonald wasted no time making an impressive with the Terry Reserve faithful. After being injected from the bench, the former Wolves striker opened the scoring in the 32nd minute and then scored a second just nine minutes later.
The victory ensured that Albion Park went through the first half of the regular season unbeaten and, at that stage of the competition, they sat 10 points clear on top of the Premier League ladder.
As the dust settles on Coniston's premiership win, it's easy to forget that - just four months earlier - the team underwent a drastic change.
In early May, the South Coast community was left stunned after the club announced that it had parted ways with head coach Rob Jonovski, effective immediately.
The announcement came less than three days out from their next clash with Port Kembla, and no reason has been given publicly for why it happened.
In a statement, Coniston thanked Jonovski for his time and added that they "wish him all the best in the future".
"Robert has coached Coniston FC since 2021, through the volatile years of COVID and wet weather postponements, having strengthened the club into a genuine contender in the Illawarra Premier League," they wrote.
By mid-May, the club announced that second-grade coach Franc Pierro would take the reins as Coniston's head coach. And the rest, as they say, is history.
No-one really knew what to expect from Helensburgh in their first campaign back in the Premier League, and no-one could have predicted what happened in their opening month of the 2023 season.
The Thistles opened their account with a gritty 2-2 draw with reigning champions Wollongong United in round one. The following week, they played out a 2-2 stalemate with Bellambi, before repeating the same 2-2 scoreline against Wollongong Olympic in the third round.
In round four, Burgh did it again, playing out a 2-2 draw with South Coast United, and then made it five stalemates on the trot when they drew 4-4 with Corrimal.
Andy Paine's men then finally mixed things up in round six, beating Coniston 3-2, to finally break through for their maiden victory. Remarkably, at that stage, they were one of only two unbeaten teams left in the Premier League (alongside Albion Park).
Finally, it only seems fitting to go back to where the season began. And boy, did it begin with a bang in March.
In a fiery affair, six goals were scored - and four red cards dished out - during the Premier League's season opener between Cringila and Coniston at Crehan Park. In the end, the Lions claimed a tough 4-2 victory, with a Takayuki Kayano own goal in the 72nd minute sealing Cono's fate.
Coniston trio Sam Matthews, Daniel Lowe and Jordan Prentoski were all sent off before halftime, while Anthony Krsteski from Cringila was also issued a red card for a mistimed tackle.
"It was a very fiery, passionate game that boiled over in some instances, which obviously led to the red cards. But the game itself was good," Lions coach Jorge De Matos said post-match.
"Regardless of the cards handed out, the officials did a good job to maintain control of the game. In a game where four red cards are handed out, but there's zero injuries, I believe that's a good job well done."
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