By David Nagel
It wasn’t supposed to end this way, or this quickly, for Inverloch-Kongwak coach Ben Soumilas.
The senior coaching career of one of the most respected football figures in the region came to an unexpected end on Saturday when the Sea Eagles surprisingly bowed out in the elimination final against Warragul Industrials.
Soumilas had previously informed the club he would step down at the end of this year’s campaign.
The loss to the Dusties – as raging-hot favourites – brought the curtain down on a senior coaching journey that has spanned the best part of two decades.
Soumilas took on his first coaching role at Garfield in 2003, leading the Stars to consecutive grand finals – winning a premiership in 2004 – in his first two years at the helm.
He coached the Stars for five years, and stayed on as a player in 2008 before taking the reins at Drouin in 2009.
Soumilas coached Drouin to consecutive grand finals in 2010-11, without the ultimate success, before making the move to Inverloch in 2013.
“We moved to Inverloch and I originally signed on as an assistant, but the senior coach left and I ended up coaching from the beginning,” Soumilas recalled, before giving his first impression of the club.
“What struck me first, and I remember this clearly, was the amount of really good people that wanted to move the club forward.
“It was a really good place with lots of talented young players in their early 20’s…a really strong core group of players.
“I look back and think how lucky I was to have landed there when I did, when the club was on the way up and I was lucky enough to be part of it.
“I don’t know if it’s because Inverloch is a holiday town or not, and they’re used to welcoming others, but I was welcomed with open arms and was always made to feel that way.”
Soumilas would guide the Sea Eagles to premiership success in the first season of the rejuvenated West Gippsland Football Netball Competition (WGFNC) in 2017.
But while premiership success ensures a lasting legacy, it’s the Sea Eagles famous club culture and spirit that has always been the number-one focus.
“It’s the number-one priority at Inverloch,” Soumilas said.
“If I look back and reflect, I’m probably most proud of the change I’ve had in my way of thinking.
“I loved my time at Garfield, but at the beginning it was about winning at all costs, and I shifted my thoughts there to trying to make it the best place it could.
“Then at Drouin it was all about creating the best environment possible with the by-product being winning.
“By the time I got to Inverloch it was the first thing we worked on as a club, creating a culture and working on acceptable behaviours.
“As an overall club it was our number-one priority and it still hangs on the walls and guides the club today.
“It’s more fun when you win, there’s no doubt about that, but the biggest thing is creating a club that people are proud to be a part of.”
And winning is even more fun when you win premierships.
“We lost the 2016 grand final (to Fish Creek in the Alberton league) and were really motivated in the new competition to make a strong first impression and we had a wonderful season,” Soumilas recalled.
“We felt like we let it slip in ‘16 and the players were so motivated to get the job done in ‘17.
“That’s my memory; the players were so committed to the cause.
“I felt so calm and confident on grand final day because I couldn’t even consider that our players were not going to perform.
“I haven’t experienced that type of feeling before, and haven’t ever since.”
So what happened on Saturday against the Dusties?
“The first thing to recognise is that the Dusties deserved to win,” Soumilas said with typical class.
“If you then start to reflect on your own performance, we’re bitterly disappointed.
“It’s only a game of footy, and we’ll move on and life will be okay, but you put so much time and effort into putting yourself into a good position on the ladder and we simply didn’t showcase what we were capable of.
“We had plenty of the ball in the first quarter, but didn’t use it well enough to set up shots at goal.
“At quarter time, they’re still in the mix and they got their tails up from that point forward.
“We weren’t cocky or arrogant heading in, but we were certainly confident that we would get through the game.
“But full credit to the Dusties, they were better than us on the day.”
Soumilas explained why he had chosen to step away from one of the plum coaching roles in the region.
“I feel like I’m making a decision that’s best for the football-netball club,” he explained.
“They’ve had my voice for a long time, and if there’s a coach out there that wants to start or continue a coaching career, I don’t think they could get a better job locally.
“The club is well set up going forward and it just needs someone to come in and put their fingerprints all over it.
“I don’t have a desire to move to another club, or coach anywhere else, because I just don’t think it could get any better than this.
“And a big part of me just wants to go to the football with my wife Bridget and watch my boys play.”
The two-time premiership coach said he had mixed emotions when packing away the whiteboard for the final time.
“I am an emotional person and I am feeling a bit sad,” he admitted.
“I’ll do something interesting with my life and keep myself busy, but it is a bit sad, and a bit of relief as well…there’s definitely mixed emotions.
“But the overwhelming feeling is that I couldn’t be more grateful for the journey and to land at a club like this.”