It was the premiership that seemed almost unfathomable almost 41 days earlier.
Sandringham had just been annihilated by 77 points at Box Hill Oval against Eastern Ranges.
Granted, schoolboy players would return, and the team would be better than early in the season when they last played, as new coach Wayne Cripps' gameplan was still coming together. But time was ticking.
People internally and externally surely had their doubts – there are five probable top 30 2022 draft prospects, but are they a champion team or a team with some individual NAB League bullies?
Cripps chose to believe the former: “I think we can win the premiership and I tell people that,” he said, addressing the group during the Eastern review the following Monday.
“If that ends with me having egg on my face then so be it, but I back you boys all the way,” he said.
It was a different tact to what players and staff members expected when going into the RSEA Park function room after training.
The old Moorabbin might have seen a customary coach’s spray after that performance, but with the Danny Frawley Centre in Cripps’ peripheral, it was much more measured and calculated.
He put a red line through it as a one-off blip. After all, he had to believe that; if you are beaten at your own game by an Eastern side which traditionally plays a different brand and there are deeper issues, they can’t be addressed in just two weeks.
That week was about the time when more systems started going in place for the team to have more versatility depending on game scenario. It further instilled teamwork into a program that usually has such a naturally transient and introspective mindset.
The coach also asked the group at that meeting: “who gained respect for ‘Ashy’ after his leadership against Eastern: all hands raised in unison.
He’s a quiet and confident leader, which some mistake for arrogance, but it puts currency on his words.
Vic Metro coach Jason Davenport has highlighted similar things about Ashcroft from his national championships carnival: he makes people around him better.
At halftime of that Eastern game, Ashcroft challenged his teammates and essentially asking them to get their head in the game after a 10-goal-to-three first half. It was a change of course from his usual behavior.
At full-time, he asked Cripps to get the group sitting in a circle in the rooms and had a discussion about what needed to improve and how the squad could regroup. That started on the Monday.
A clip of an Eastern player going after Ashcroft physically with little intervention from teammates in the centre of the ground with several Dragons in the vicinity was also played on the following Monday.
The learning from that signaled the progression of the tightening of the Dragons in their last five games of the season.
Slowly, they begun playing for each other.
When Charlie Clarke did something freakish, teammates celebrated his goals like it was their own. Those sorts of moments lifted the mood and became momentum-swingers or daggers in opposition’s hearts. They played like a team. They looked like a team.
It didn’t all happen immediately.
The following week, the Dragons were playing against standard-setters Oakleigh and were far outplayed for three quarters.
At RSEA Park, they came back from 36 points down at three-quarter-time to lose by just a goal.
Prime movers including such as Olli Hotton and Cam McKenzie were back from schoolboy footy and in that fourth quarter, they begun to gel.
Post-game, Cripps affirmed there was positives from the ending, an ominous warning to the rest of the competition, but still work to do.
From that game on, there was continuity in the lineup as each match became do-or-die. Players started to buy into what they needed to do from a team point-of-view, even if the personal stats-sheet didn’t read prettily for certain players in some weeks.
In the wildcard round against Murray, the Sandy narrative was inversed: it was them with the running for three quarters needing to hold off a late charge.
That proved the class of Sandringham when they could put it together for a sustained period.
One performer that day was Levi Ashcroft, whose stunning boundary line goal was reward for so many defensive efforts throughout the day.
As much as affirming Levi’s talent, one particular incident in that game illustrated the dangers of messing with him: a physical encounter with big brother Will.
He had told the media that that the prospect of playing with his brother was a factor in nominating as father-son, and now Will’s actions were suggestive of their bond – and the point the team could get to.
But they still had a way to go: Harry Sheezel's direct opponent on the day was roughing him up physically, curbing his influence and there was little intervention.
But the understanding was coming: Ben Hempel, Owen Bater (16 year-old) and other non-playing squad members implored the team to help: next would be enacting it.
After nearly letting Murray back in that day, Sandy won their subsequent three matches by a cumulative 138 points. Perhaps outside of the final quarter of the grand final when the result was a fait accompli, there was no taking the foot off the accelerator.
Speaking to Rookie Me Central, Sheezel said of the side’s defence: “I'd say our backline is the best backline I've ever seen play junior footy.
"All of them just play their role unbelievably and we wouldn't be where we are without them."
And they are not your high-profile names.
Nathan Scollo was the only constant in the second half of the season and his reliability against direct opponents got him a state combine invite.
Then there was Darcy Gilbert who would shut down the opposition’s biggest forward and allow Gus McLennan to play his game and intercept.
Not only a big body, Gilbert’s excellent defensive craft and competitiveness was sharpened over years of playing against competitive bodies in the SMJFL for East Brighton, the Dragons reaping the rewards in 2022.
McLennan, meanwhile, played through considerable soreness and minimised his training, but you could always back he would find a way to get up for match day.
The flashy Matt Clarkson provided voice on-field and had his own moments, deserving the cup for his grit after getting cut as a 16-year-old and fighting his way back into the squad.
And Hempel, whose effervescence was a pillar of that solidifying culture, fought his way back from injury once again in 2022, against the odds to play the last two games. Likewise, Mitch Ryan's recovery, and Archie Roberts' character, which matched his boldness off halfback.
Getting that first win out of the way against Murray was crucial.
Cripps asked his side to savour the feeling, but remember the jubilation and use it as fuel.
The following day, the players' group chat was blowing up as all eyes and ears were on the Oakleigh v Bendigo match. The Chargers’ loss opened up the draw. It was an opportunity sensed, and, as it would turn out, an opportunity seized.
Instead of playing the arch-nemesis, it was Calder.
But, as was highlighted mid-week, if arrogance and ego became a substitute for confidence and self-belief, Sandringham’s year would be done.
After sticking to the process against a typically plucky Cannons outfit, the squad had a six-day break before backing up to play ladder-leading Gippsland.
Despite being likely first rounders, it was potential number one pick Ashcroft, forward dynamo Sheezel, Cam McKenzie and Olli Hotton who led that, while navigating late season discomfort leading that one-week-at-a-time approach.
For all of his dazzle and goal sense, Sheezel, to teammates, is the humble leader of the attack who executes hit-ups as well as he does goals and assesses the game so well he becomes forwards coach Mark Cooke’s virtual assistant at quarter breaks.
Another who personifies leadership and altruism is Jakob Anderson.
When he arrived at the final training session ahead of the preliminary final, he had found out just minutes earlier of a hamstring injury that ultimately ruled him out of the remainder of the NAB League season.
As news filtered through, the devastation was palpable. His loss threatened to be soul-destroying.
The chatter among players was as much about what his absence denies Sandy from a team point-of-view as it was about simply being shattered for a mate. ‘Surely not Ando, he deserves a premiership as much as anyone!’
The Haileybury boy and Dingley junior, was the side’s spiritual leader late in the season after the loss of the affable Luca Macnab, itself a separate, crushing story.
Far from being self-centred and pitiful, though, Anderson bought into the team-first approach.
Given the responsibility of deputy-vice-captain at the beginning of the season, he proved his credentials by remaining upbeat and supportive amid trying circumstances.
In those two games, he was on the interchange, working the phones and providing dual affirmation to teammates – playing his role in the premiership.
Worn out bodies against a rugged country outfit on a small Port Melbourne ground sounded like a recipe that would suit the Power.
Three players were identified from the Power that needed to be stopped and the no-frills backline and the defensive mindset of midfielders when necessary kept Coby Burgiel, Bailey Humphrey and Zane Duursma ineffectual in the first half. They delivered Dragons footy, beating Gippsland on the inside.
Defend first, and your opportunity going the other way will stem from that.
And the chance came the following week for all 23 of them, the team going into the big dance unchanged.
The mood at the captain's run and team dinner the night before the game was one of soothing excitement and joy at the prospect awaiting them.
Will Ashcroft's boys played a high-level brand of footy built on intensity and attack, the 43-point triumph chock full of highlights.
Sheezel and Hotton put forward goal of the year contenders. Ben Andrews just about kicked one from outside 50. McLennan picked off intercept marks for fun. Ryan proved his importance.
Most pertinently, after struggling with a back injury sustained in the preliminary final, Jamie Hope played a role in the match with 13 disposals and a goal.
McKenzie’s overseas residence has become well known, but Hope, too, spent four years out of Australia focusing moreso on rugby.
After returning in 2017, he, like so many others, played predominantly as a midfielder as a junior, but just as he made an immediate impression as an Aussie rules footballer, Hope quickly established himself as a crucial piece of Sandringham’s forward line.
The big names performed but there were also so many other stories.
Jimmy Creighton fittingly kicked the first goal.
The Queenslander was Sandringham’s Mr Fix It throughout the season and proved the tonesetter in the grand final.
The only squad member to play every game, Creighton started the season in defence, stepped up in the midfield when players were away and was a deadeye dick in front of goal late in the season. And he even competed in some ruck contests inside 50.
Creighton was emblematic of what players had to be prepared to do.
Despite the talent, Cripps said on multiple occasions that reputations would not guarantee selection.
And he had acted on it: 16-year-old Ted Clayton got midfield minutes in a late season game against GWV; the efforts of debutant Billy McGee Galimberti were highlighted as the benchmark at three-quarter time of the Eastern game; and Bater's resilience was praised at that Monday review.
Although not a premiership player, Bater's spirit in that game despite being beaten by his direct opponent rang a tune Cripps wanted all his players to hear: nothing changes.
Regardless of how well - or not - one was positioned, remain steady and results will come.
That proved true for Lochie Benton and Ben Andrews, who doubles as the club's DJ. The pair are two-season Dragons who were well positioned to win the premiership if a grand final was contested last year, with this team success some reward for Benton’s stellar junior career at Dingley.
Their output kept warranting selection.
Alongside Andrews, and Chris Rousakis, the key-forward from St Pauls McKinnon who scored 53 goals in local footy in 2019, the other key-position player was Vigo Visentini. Despite being just 17-years-old, there is already lots to like - in his approach with key-position coach Cooke and in showcased talent.
Mitch Rowe, who came third in the SMJFL’s league best and fairest in 2019, grew throughout the season and always had a smile on his face at training, regardless of personal form.
Toby McMullin and Will Brown were a couple who performed on the big stage, validating much hype.
What about Brown? With 2022 just about over, attention turns quickly to next year’s prospects and Brown made himself front-of-mind by turning up in a big game.
Former coach Jackson Kornberg has seen potential for years: he runs and runs, competes and is always seeking improvement.
Ryley Sanders is another 17-year-old who has fitted in seamlessly to an interstate program and has shown so much promise and confidence as a bottom-ager.
Those 23 played the premiership, but 71 players pulled on a guernsey throughout the year.
Many squad members were there celebrating, putting aside their individual footy and personal omission to appreciate the success.
Even previous players including Max Ramsden, Finn Callaghan and Blake Howes came down to support, among others.
After the game, it was a beaming smile, not egg, plastered across the coach’s face.
Friday 16 September will forever be a special night etched in Dragons folklore.
23 players wrote themselves into Sandy history, their success built on years of hard work, fastened in a six-week period and secured on a night of absolute glory.