Prior to the 2019 Ballarat District Soccer Association season, Daylesford-Hepburn United player and team manager Ivan Carter kept his expectations in check.
The club had just been elevated back into the division one open. Not because it was promoted, but because a change to the BDSA by-laws mandated they must.
"We initially thought mid-table would be realistic, we thought we'd beat the bottom teams but struggle against the city teams," he recalled.
He had a right to be reserved. The division hadn't been kind to the club in recent years. And after a losing its round one opener in convincing fashion, deja vu was starting to creep in.
But it wouldn't last. The club didn't lose again for the rest of the regular season. And following a win last weekend against the second-placed Warrnambool Rangers, Daylesford-Hepburn United celebrated its first league title in almost 20 years.
DAYLESFORD-HEPBURN UNITED CEREBRATES LONG AWAITED LEAGUE TITLE
"It's pretty exciting, it's been the best part of my life this year. Just the success and the rise, and the excitement that we can cut it with the big teams," Carter said.
"For us, the league title is a better representation of our success, and it shows our consistency and it shows depth. It's a reflection of the effort we have put in."
Playing under the leadership of head coach Dragi Koleski, this year's side has forged an identity around sound defence. They have conceded the least goals of any team this season, while proving just as efficient in attack. Combine that with a number of former players returning to the club, the team has stumbled upon the right balance of experience and youth.
But what the club has achieved off the field has been just as impressive. With a slew of upgrades to the club's pitch and clubhouse, as well as a rich history, the club has fostered a good culture for players to fall back on. It has helped bring back top-line players such as Lachlan Torquati and leading goal-scorer Owen Tubitt from bigger clubs and cities.
"We have always struggled linking juniors into seniors, but this season has given our juniors a bit of an aspiration that there is that avenue for good soccer available," Carter said.
But the story isn't over yet for Daylesford-Hepburn which will now attempt to turn its Cinderella season into a full-blown fairytale in the BDSA finals this weekend.
One win would grant the club a grand final berth, and ironically, it must come against the same Sebastopol team that beat them in round one.
Regardless of the outcome, the club are well and truly winners.
"The big city clubs have been surprised to see us bounce back like this, a lot of our younger guys who took off to the city and bigger clubs - we've managed to get them all back in the one year which is pretty rare," Carter said.
"We've built the stability and the platform, and people want to be involved again."