They weren't expecting the measles epidemic thrown into the equation but the three Hawke's Bay secondary schoolboys' teams are ready to compete at the nationals kicking off in Napier next week.
Top Bay round-robin league qualifiers Havelock North High and Hastings Boys' High are in the 32-team tournament but perennial powerhouses Napier Boys' High have been granted a wild card entry.
"Hastings did an outstanding job and showed what it takes to win finals. I told them I was happy for them and that's finals footy," says Havelock co-coach Bruce Barclay after his boys lost to 2-1 to HBHS in the HB Knockout Cup final at Guthrie Park in the village on Thursday night. Christian Jirkowsky is the other mentor.
The sides were scoreless at halftime but HBHS striker Jack Parker, a Havelock North Wanderers campaigner, broke the deadlock shortly after play resumed. However, centre-mid Kenny Willox, also playing for the Wanderers in the Central Federation League, equalised 1-all for HNHS before HBHS striker Jarvis Alatise found the winner with 10 minutes to go in the 25-minute halves.
The striped navy blues are in pool E of the nationals with St Peter's, of Auckland, Hutt International Boys and Cashmere, of Christchurch.
Havelock North, Barclay says, are a "very capable side" with some special athletes in their squad.
"We're confident we can pretty much compete with most sides on our day," he says, mindful they are up against rivals who have structures in place and employ the services of professional coaches at well-funded schools in bigger centres.
It is one of the most impressive seasons for the villagers in recent memory.
"For a co-ed school to win a local competition against some pretty good boys' schools is quite an achievement," says Barclay. "I'd think we'd have to be one of the top co-ed schools knocking about at the moment but, you know, there'll be opportunities for others to question that."
Willox, Guy Reeves, Sam Waddington and son Luca Barclay have played in Fed League matches.
The Grant Hastings-coached HBHS drew with NBHS 2-all, lost to Havelock 2-1 who, in turn, beat NBHS 3-1. HBHS pipped NBHS on goal average in the league to qualify second for the nationals. They are in pool B with Sacred Heart (Auckland), St Patrick's (Wellington and Burnside (Christchurch).
Hastings said they had beaten Lindisfarne College 5-0, considering they hadn't beaten them for years in a proper competition. They also beat Taradale High 4-0 in the KO Cup before beating NBHS 4-1 in the semifinal.
"We have gained a bit of momentum and confidence in a very tough pool but, at least, the boys have proven they can play to get positive results," he says of HBHS who boast NZ school reps in Alatise and Isaac Belcher as well as Alex Eaglestone, a Hawke's Bay United youth player.
As far as Hastings was concerned, measles wasn't an issue for his boys.
"You don't even think about that, do you?" he says. "It's just sport and, crikey, you now have outside factors also playing a part."
NBHS coach Grant Bundle said an email had been passed on to them yesterday morning from NZSS authorities to check their squad had had immunisation.
"We're going to send out emails to our parents just to ensure the boys are inoculated," says Bundle whose side are in pool D with Auckland Grammar, Hamilton Boys and St Patrick's Silverstream.
Bundle says the wild is a first one for NBHS and is indicative of a cyclical rebuilding phase.
Napier Marist midfielder Luis Toomey captains the Sky Blues who have Central League Rovers campaigner in Ethan Clarke and NZ U16 school rep goalkeeper Oscar Mason.
"I think with most schools' systems it's cyclic [while at] other schools they have good years and they have rebuilding years so I think this year we can consider as being a rebuilding year [for us."
He says the influx of a dozen newbies in the NBHS first XI squad had made their expectations a little more realistic i an elite environment.
Some of the results hadn't gone their way as well but the boys had done their best, including beating Havelock North in their final league match and a draw with HBHS.
"It'll be good exposure [next week] and we'll lose a few as well but, in saying that, as a wild card we're pretty low anyway," he says expecting to grapple with tyheir demons in trying to break out of their pool to make the playoffs.
However, Bundle says NBHS are playing at home in reasonable weather in hard-and-fast pitches week-in, week-out against outsiders who will find it foreign. Games are scheduled for Park island, Napier, although NBHS and Lindisfarne school grounds have been bracketed if conditions deteriorate.
"Going to the second tier had been an option for us before we were given a wild card so we were preparing to go there but we got an opportunity to play in a tournament in exposing a number of players to the highest quality of sport at this level."