IN winning their second consecutive EP premier men's hockey title, NMMU A used their University Sports South Africa (USSA) success as a springboard to the league triumph.
In the mid-year varsity week, NMMU produced their best ever performance at the tournament by reaching the final, eventually losing to the University of Johannesburg 2-1 after leading 1-0 with 15 minutes left in the final.
No NMMU team have ever been that far. For coach Cheslyn Gie it was vindication for their focus in recent years.
"Our top priority each year is to do well at the USSA week," Gie said yesterday, "and previously we have battled because we are an open club and we had quite a few non-students in our team.
"So when we came to USSA [for bona fide students only] we often struggled."
Gie said the club had changed their focus to have a strong student flavour.
"Since we've done that, we have been much more consistent at the USSA week," he said.
For example, this year NMMU scored their first ever wins at a USSA week over UCT and University of KwaZulu-Natal, with the team showing great character to beat the Natalians.
There were just 90 seconds in the semifinal when captain Stuart Daniell forced his way forward, beating several defenders and laying off for Jason Doherty-Bigara to get the equaliser. In extra time, NMMU took control in the second half and won via a golden goal.
"In the final against UJ, we were leading 1-0 with 15 minutes to go but I think that extra time against UKZN just told against us at that stage," Gie said.
Far from losing their focus after their USSA efforts, the NMMU team came back more motivated than ever to capture the league title and they duly went through the season unbeaten.
"After winning the title last year, I think the guys only realised how hard it would be to defend it when they trailed 3-0 against Gelvan at half-time, but ended up drawing 3-3," Gie said.
"At that stage, I also thought the season was going out the window. The next day we were 1-0 down against Lakeside and won 2-1.
"I think that weekend changed us a lot and gave us more confidence." Once NMMU returned from the USSA week, the players remained motivated to win the league title.
"The players' attitude was very good," Gie said.
"They wanted to attend practices and wanted to win the league."
Although any league triumph is due largely to a team effort, Gie said young Michael Abrahams, who is in the SA under-21 side and brother of former SA player Clyde, had stood out this year. "It was a team effort, but this year Michael Abrahams has been phenomenal," Gie said.
"When he came back from USSA he was outstanding; after that week he became a different player.
"I think the win also had a lot to do with captain Stuart Daniell because when he speaks the guys listen and he's got leadership qualities.
"Once he got over some injuries [goalkeeper] Warren Doherty-Bigara also played well and he's one for the future. He kept five clean sheets this year and has really improved."
It was not only the men who impressed this year, for the women also claimed the premier league trophy.
"The women have been consistent and we are looking good for the next two or three years," Gie said.
"We were a little disappointed with the USSA week because they were flat in the beginning and just missed out on the semifinals on goal difference.
"But they won their final two matches to end in fifth place."
Although they battle to compete with the bigger varsities in attracting top players, NMMU are looking to beef up their squads for next year.
Gie says they will target Eastern Cape players first before looking further afield.
If the varsity remain strong, it can only be a good thing for EP hockey.