ANDY BROWN insisted that while there was intense disappointment among his Bradford Bulldogs Under-14s team, his players could hold their heads high after a competitive campaign in Division One North.
The Bulldogs went into the final weekend of their regular season knowing they needed to beat both Manchester Storm and Sheffield to make it through to the Nationals alongside unbeaten league champions Nottingham.
Stage one saw the Bulldogs achieve their objective when winning 9-7 in a fiercely competitive match at Manchester on Saturday. But they came up agonisingly short on home ice 24 hours later when they were edged out 7-6 by Sheffield, who clinched that remaining place at the Nationals in the process.
“This was a tough one to take and there were a lot of disappointed players in our dressing room afterwards,” said head coach Andy Brown.
“But the fact that we were still in a position to qualify for the Nationals in the very last game of the season, is testament to how much our team has punched above its weight against the bigger clubs in this division.
“We have shown at times we are more than a match for anyone in this league, sometimes we have fallen short, but there have been plenty of other times when we have come out on top.
“It’s been a rollercoaster season for this group of players, but a memorable one and our players can hold their heads high for what they have produced from that very first puck drop against Nottingham to that last game against Sheffield when we came so, so close to extending our season for one more week.”
It looked like the Bulldogs’ Nationals dream would be all over on the Saturday in Altrincham when, with just over eight minutes remaining, they found themselves trailing 7-6 to the Storm.
But captain Daragh Spawforth – who had earlier hit the 100-point mark for the season for the team – chose the perfect moment to fire home his hat-trick strike when levelling for the Bulldogs at 36.45.
At 41.59, Harrison Booth put the visitors ahead on the power play before Spawforth rounded off a memorable day with his fourth of the game at 44.14.
Earlier, momentum continually swung one way then the other as both teams battled hard for the four points that were on offer.
Mario Vaksmansky opened the scoring for the hosts at 6.46, although Spawforth was quick to level just under two minutes later before Danny Harrison put the Bulldogs ahead at 10.43.
Oliver Gotts made things all-square again at 15.25, but the Bulldogs then fired in four unanswered goals to take control.
Frank O’Sullivan made it 3-2 at 16.40 – his strike a memorable one more so for Spawforth whose assist saw him reach the magic 100-point mark.
The same combination struck on the power play at 20.01 to make it 4-2, Spawforth then doubling his tally at 21.25 before O’Sullivan completed a six-minute hat-trick at 22.53 to put the Bulldogs four goals clear.
But, as happened during the clash in Bradford back in January, Manchester came storming back, Gotts completing his hat-trick with two goals inside a minute before Vaksmansky made it a one-goal game at 27.05.
The comeback seemed complete for the hosts when a quickfire double from Alfie Moore put them 7-6 ahead, but the Bulldogs were able to recover and take their battle down to the final day of the regular season.
With everything on the line for both teams, it was the Bulldogs who struck first at Little Horton Lane, Spawforth breaking the deadlock with just over three minutes gone.
But a strong Sheffield team were in determined mood to make sure they made it to the end-of-season Nationals on their home ice by racing into a three-goal lead through goals from Harry Illingworth and Matiss Magone.
Danny Harrison made it a one-goal game again when back-handing over the right shoulder of Thomas Flint at 11.44 but Sheffield’s answer was quick and clinical, Magone scoring twice more in 17 seconds to complete his hat-trick and give his side a 5-2 lead at the first intermission.
Joseph Matthewman extended that lead further at 17.39 and that was how it stayed until just over four minutes into the third period when O’Sullivan gave the hosts hope, only for Matthewman to restore the four-goal cushion at 38.49.
But just as the Bulldogs and their fans seemed resigned to their fate, they gave themselves hope late on with two goals in 17 seconds, the first from Booth at 42.13 before Harrison doubled his tally.
Nerves on the Sheffield bench became slightly more frayed when Will Durgan struck to make it a one-goal game with 13 seconds remaining, but there just wasn’t enough time for the hosts, as Sheffield held out to ensure it was they who prevailed in a thoroughly entertaining, high-quality clash to clinch the North One division runners-up spot.