The Box Hill Hawks fell short by 10-points on Saturday, in a thriller against Essendon in front a strong and boisterous crowd at Windy Hill.
Four first-half goals from Jackson Ross threatened to prove the difference, in a match that saw nine lead changes and countless momentum swings.
However, with the game balancing on a knife’s edge mid-way through the final term, two consecutive goals within a minute to Essendon’s Irving Mosquito and Jordan Houlihan ensured the Bombers held firm to victory and continued their outstanding season.
Bolstered by the AFL-listed inclusions of Roughead, Lewis, Morrison, Schoenmakers, Nash and Pittonet, Box Hill entered the match fresh off the bye and was eyeing off its first back-to-back wins since Round 2.
But from the outset, it was clear that the home side had other plans.
A clearance from the opening bounce landed on the chest of Essendon forward Mitch Brown. The Essendon big man duly going back and roosting the 50m set shot.
With only two kicks and within 41 seconds, Essendon had secured the perfect start.
It took only five minutes for Box Hill goal-kicking machine Jackson Ross to get on the board, with his 20th goal for the season handing the Hawks their first for the day.
Essendon then began to show why they are the number one ranked team in attack and defence in the VFL.
Hocking, Snelling and Houlahan all reaped the rewards of impressive team play by the Bombers, stretching the lead out to 13-points late in the first term.
But a Box Hill Hawks highlight reel soon followed.
Livewire Nathan Boucher exploded from the centre square, putting on the jets to slot a superb running goal.
Sharpshooter Ross was as clever as ever, dribbling through his second major for the term out of congestion.
Then Conor Nash fended off an opponent with authority before backing himself with a long-range 45-metre goal, as the seconds ticked down to the siren.
Each goal proved as vital as the other, clawing the game back to just a single point separating the sides at the first break.
The second term once again belonged to the Jackson Ross show.
The livewire forward grabbed a terrific on-one-on mark and made no mistake with the set shot for his third major.
He then launched himself at a pack deep in attack, reeled in a hanger, and once again went back and slotted the set shot for his fourth major.
In kicking four out of his side’s six goals for the match, the VFL’s second leading goal-kicker was undoubtedly thriving as the third key tall in an attack boasting both Roughead and Lewis.
However, at the opposite end of Windy Hill, the Bombers continued to tick the scoreboard over and make the most of their opportunities.
Long range goals from outside 50 to Mitch Brown and David Myers ensured Essendon’s quarter time margin doubled to two points at the main break.
Mitch Lewis kickstarted Box Hill with the perfect opening to the third term.
In his return to the VFL, Lewis lead up to the boundary and marked the ball 50 metres out.
The big man then composed himself, slotted the long-range shot, and celebrated jubilantly alongside his fellow forwards.
It was an impressive piece of play, importantly handing his team back the lead by four points.
The contest continued as an arm wrestle, with both teams battling valiantly for momentum.
Essendon speedsters Braden Ham and Nino Lazzaro streamed forward and combined for an electrifying running goal.
But just as the action looked to conclude for the term, Lewis again stepped up to nail a vital mark and goal directly in front.
It kept Box Hill within striking distance, slicing the margin down to two-points yet again at the last break.
As the air in the stands of Windy Hill became chillier and the light fainter, the contest began to fire up.
It was fiery, physical, old school footy. Bodies flying everywhere, collisons aplenty.
There was a sense that the importance of the result in the season for players, coaches and supporters was not lost to anyone.
Box Hill Coach Max Bailey had addressed his troops at the final break with the mantra to play your role and trust the system.
Hawk midfielder Luke Meadows did just that, running into goal and snatching the visitors back the lead by three points.
With the game in the balance and no team giving an inch, it was clear a four-quarter performance was required for victory.
And Essendon did just that.
Essendon’s Irving Mosquito, a player who doesn’t need much of the footy to make you pay, buzzed into an open goal.
Then only seconds later, Jordan Houlihan grabbed a long entry inside 50 and executed the set shot.
The Essendon faithful erupting on their feet, the margin stretching to 10-points.
It proved to be the final dagger.
Although Box Hill locked the ball in the forward line with repeated thrusted entries and scrapping desperately for a fairy-tale revival, it was to no avail.
In the end, Essendon shutting down the reigning premiers to just the solitary goal in the final term with an all-round performance, and surging to victory in an epic #Sockit2MND Round 11 clash.
Inform ruckman Marc Pittonet was herculean in his return to the VFL, dominating the ruck battle to record 50 hit outs as well as flexing his influence around the ground with 21 disposals.
Experienced defender David Mirra was stoic in defence gathering 23 disposals and 11 marks, while Harry Morrison was a vital contributor through the midfield with 26 disposals and seven marks.
Box Hill Coach Max Bailey spoke positively post-match in light of another close loss.
“The boys are a bit disappointed, as we all are at losing these close games, because we’ve been through it a little bit lately,” Bailey said.
“Their ability to keep the ball of us, probably after quarter time they maintained possession and won the uncontested mark battle.”
“That hurt us. We need to have the ball obviously to try and score, and they did that well.
“It’s only the small margin things that we need to clean up.
“I think if you asked us five weeks ago, particularly after the draw to Footscray and the losses to Richmond and Collingwood, there was some big learnings for us and it has taken a lot of work to change that around. I think we have done that.
“It’s now the small little things like execution of skills, decision making, missed tackles and cough ups that we need to clean up.
“It’s a really even competition and if you are off by just a little bit, that is all sides need. Particularly if you are a side as good as Essendon.”
On a positive note, Hawthorn’s VFLW team ran away victorious for the third game in a row by 36-points earlier in the day.
Box Hill’s inconsistent season finds it slide to ninth position on the VFL ladder, with four wins, four losses and a draw from its nine matches.
The Box Hill Hawks return to Box Hill City Oval next Saturday to face Sandringham, who they defeated by 41-points in Round 2.
BOX HILL HAWKS 4.2 6.2 8.5 9.7 (61)
ESSENDON 4.3 6.4 8.7 10.11 (71)
Box Hill Hawks: Ross 4, Lewis 2, Nash, Boucher, Meadows
Essendon: Houlahan 2, Lazzaro 2, Brown 2, Hocking, Mosquito, Myers, Snelling
Box Hill Hawks: Morrison 26, Miles 25, Mirra 23, Pittonet 21, Kilpatrick 20
Essendon: Myers 30, Dea 22, Snelling 22, Gleeson 21, Hartley 20