By Ian Hanson
FREMANTLE, Western Australia, April 25. FREMANTLE’S Ukranian born goal scoring machine Andrei Kovalenko tonight became the first player in Australian Water Polo history to score 100 goals in a National League season and it was his most important goal of the year.
Kovalenko’s "outside seven metre" shot came 1 minute 44 seconds into a sudden death tie-breaker semi-final against the luckless Balmain Tigers.
It earned Tom Hoad’s Mariners a place in this weekend’s National League grand final series against defending champions and minor premiers Sydney University Lions.
The Lions with Australian captain Nathan Thomas and vice-captain Thomas Whalan in awesome form, wrapped up their place in the premiership decider with a resounding 16-7 semi-final win over the emerging KFC Queensland Breakers.
Sydney University has been the form team all season and will start favourites to win back-to-back premiership crowns at the Sydney Aquatic Centre on Sunday – unless Andrei Kovalenko has a say in the proceedings.
All the attention tonight was on the Mariners and the Tigers in their second semi-final and the number 12 cap of A. Kovalenko.
The 1992 and 1996 Ukranian Olympian, who played for Australia in Sydney in 2000, went into tonight’s games with 97 goals – after scoring one goal last night in a match which saw him fouled out in the third quarter.
The Tigers won game one 5-4 last night and the Mariners had to win game two to keep their title hopes alive.
Balmain looked to have the game well in hand, leading 9-7 at three-quarter time until Kovalenko unleashed his fury on the match in the final quarter.
The Mariners dominated the last quarter, winning the quarter 3-0 and the match 10-9 with Kovalenko scoring his 98th and 99th goals, forcing the series into a third tie-breaker match.
At the end of two five-minute halves in the tie-breaker, the scores were locked at 2-2 with Peter Petrov and Christian Hoad scoring for Fremantle and James Falzon and Dean Semmens netting for the Tigers – after Balmain had led 2-0 at half-time.
The tie-breaker went to sudden death after both teams had squandered chances after almost two exhausting hours in the water.
With the crowd on the edge of their seats, every pass and every foul counted as the two teams battled for a place in the prestigious grand final series.
With just 1 minute 44 seconds into sudden-death, the Balmain defense, so strong for so long and with young goalie Daniel Lees in great touch, left the triple Olympian Kovalenko unmarked outside seven meters, in the center of the pool.
The former Ukranian let loose with his powerhouse right arm to score the golden goal, his 100th of the season, to qualify the Mariners for the weekend grand final series – a fairytale ending to an intense and gripping night.
Olympic water polo at its absolute best!
AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL WATER POLO LEAGUE, SEMI-FINALS, at Peter Montgomery Olympic Pool, Sydney:
1ST SEMI-FINAL, GAME TWO:
FREMANTLE MARINERS 10 (T Cleland 2, A Kovalenko 2, P Tresize, C Dolley, P Petrov, J Neesham, C Hoad, J Beadsworth) d BALMAIN TIGERS 9 (G Woods 3, N Falzon 2, D Semmens, T Hamill, M Claridge, J Falzon).
TIE BREAKER SEMI-FINAL:
FREMANTLE 3 (A Kovalenko, P Petrov, C Hoad) d BALMAIN 2 (J Falzon, D Semmens) Winning goal scored after 1:44 seconds of sudden death.
2nd SEMI-FINAL, GAME TWO:
SYDNEY UNIVERSITY LIONS 16 (N Thomas 4, T Whalan 3, R Maitland 3, T Franklin, J Ramirez, J Moar, S McGregor, R Owen-Jones, A Visch) d KFC QUEENSLAND BREAKERS 7 (C Corbin 2, P Figlioli 2, D Will, C Votan, J Boyd).
BRONZE MEDAL MATCH ONE (1pm Saturday: Peter Montgomery Olympic Pool) Balmain Tigers v KFC Fremantle Breakers.
GOLD MEDAL MATCH ONE (3pm Saturday: Peter Montgomery Olympic Pool) Sydney University Lions v Fremantle Mariners
GRAND FINAL SUNDAY BEGINS AT 9.40AM WITH THE GOLD MEDAL MATCH AT 1.25PM