New Lambton won't be playing finals football for the first time in their short Herald Women's Premier League history but stand-in coach Cas Wright took plenty of positives out of the defending champions' round-12 performance on Sunday.
The Eagles went down 6-4 to finals contenders Warners Bay at John Street Oval and, while they leaked several goals, it was the second-highest goal tally they had accrued in a match this season. The highest was a 5-0 win over Thornton in round six in their only win of the season.
New Lambton face the last-placed Redbacks in the penultimate round this weekend and Wright said the focus remained on building towards 2021.
"Heads didn't go down at all and it felt like we achieved a lot," Wright said post-match on Sunday.
"With two games to go, the focus will be to have some fun, dig in, work for each other and be honest about it."
Wright rated the first-grade debut of Eagles 17s defender Jada-Lee McBride as a standout. In a baptism of fire she came off the bench and went up against former National Women's Soccer League player Jen Hoy.
Coach Scott Ellis was equally full of praise for some of Merewether's young guns over the weekend when United played a double-header against Mid Coast without a handful of experienced players. Reserve-grade fullback Monique Collin replaced injured Ellie Withers on Sunday and "had a blinder".
"It was her starting debut in first grade and we switched to a back three, which is tough at the best of times," Ellis said on Sunday. "They did a really good job back there. Shani Vazey was out sick yesterday and did an incredible job today. We had quite a few players out but the players who stepped in over the weekend did really well and quite clearly we have some future first-graders there."
Mid Coast kept their finals hopes alive with a 3-2 win on Saturday in Taree then a 1-1 draw on Sunday at Myamblah Oval.
After taking a 2-0 lead then letting Merewether back into the game before beating them with a last-minute penalty on Saturday, Mid Coast coach Michael Grass said his young side needed to "continue to play brave when the pressure comes".
And some brave performances were exactly what he got on Sunday. That included a courageous effort by 16-year-old shot-stopper Xanthe Parsons, who played on despite a back complaint.
"She was making saves under a lot of duress," Grass said. "She played in a lot of pain and was just fantastic."
There will be plenty at stake when equal ladder leaders Broadmeadow and Newcastle Olympic square off at Magic Park on Sunday.
The two sides have 28 points at the top of the table, one ahead of Merewether, and the minor premiership remains open with two rounds to play before finals. Olympic are first with a superior goal difference.
The last time they met, Magic forfeited a 2-0 lead and finished with 10 players after captain and centre-back Kalista Hunter was red-carded for a professional foul. It ended in a 2-2 stalemate after WPL leading scorer Jemma House equalised at the death.
Olympic coach Harmonie Attwill used their 6-0 win over Thornton last weekend to "play around with formation" ahead of finals as well as giving reserve-grade players experience in the top grade. That included wide players Jayde Platford and Nikki Kapalos making their first-grade debuts off the bench. Olympic's reserve-grade side are also top of their table.