STRATFORD was dealt a cruel hand in the final round of East Gippsland football.
The Swans' 6.10 (46) to 7.6 (48) defeat to Lindenow means they will miss the finals, ending their premiership defence.
Stratford was equal on wins with Lucknow and Wy Yung heading into the match, with all three teams creating a logjam of clubs trying to claim two spots on offer in the post regular season.
The Swans faced the hardest challenge of the three, taking on the top of the table Cats to earn the right to participate in the finals. Had Stratford won by even one point and other results played out the way they did, it would have been enough to see them progress through on percentage.
After a pulsating first half, both sides were unable to be separated as the half-time siren sounded. Lindenow returned from the main break with four goals in the third quarter to take an 11-point lead heading into the final term, as Stratford's season remained on life-support.
With the vocal support of the home crowd, the Swans surged forward multiple times during the final term, and ended up registering seven scoring shots to three.
The one goal Lindenow kicked for the quarter proved to be enough, with the Cats' victory also enabling them to claim the minor premiership.
Having been decimated with injury at times throughout the home-and-away season, Stratford will feel relatively hard done by given it defeated every opposition team except Lindenow throughout the year.
Lindenow will now enjoy a week off before it faces Boisdale-Briagolong for a place in the grand final.
Swans pair Hayden Erfurth and Rodney O'Keefe ended the season occupying positions one and two on the league goal kicking table, with the former kicking 50 and the latter 36.
Best players for Lindenow were Luke Dyer, Paul Gould and Rohan Blandford who kicked three goals. Nick French, Regan Tait and Brad White were Stratford's best.
BOISDALE-BRIAGOLONG defeated Paynesville 16.16 (112) to 6.3 (39).
Both sides entered the match with opposite views, with the Bombers having one eye turned to the finals, and the Gulls having both eyes turned to the finish of the season.
Boisdale-Briagolong opened the game with a five-goal to two quarter, before taking a controlling but not commanding 21-point lead into the main break.
Five goals to one in the third term ensured the points would be heading the Bombers' way, as Paynesville was unable to make any inroads. The Gulls only managed to score one goal after half-time, as Boisdale-Briagolong got the win and moved on.
Best players for the Bombers were Shaun Bates, Dylan Alexander for the fifth consecutive week, and Hayden Burgiel. Ash Pescod, Jordan Farquhar and Nathan Wilson fought hard for Paynesville.
WY Yung had to wait until the final quarter to break away from a determined Lakes Entrance outfit to book its finals ticket, with the Tigers winning 14.14 (98) to 10.9 (69).
The Seagulls made life difficult for Wy Yung for the best part of three and a half quarters, as Lakes Entrance was determined to finish a disappointing season on a high.
A high scoring first quarter saw eight goals kicked between the two teams, as Wy Yung took a 13-point lead into the first break. It was a similar story of evenness in the second, as the margin was cut back to 10 points in favour of the Tigers, with the margin the same as teams huddled together at the final change of ends.
Needing a big final quarter effort to assure itself of a place in the finals, Wy Yung booted four goals to one to put the game beyond doubt as the stopwatch ticked down to the final bell.
Wy Yung ended the match with 11 goal kickers, while its best players were Mitchell Toms, Michael Young and Alex Crowe.
James Gibbs kicked four goals for Lakes Entrance and finished the season with a commendable tally of 24
from 11 games. Others to perform well for the Seagulls were Jason Puruntatameri, Josh Piper and Tom Smith.
LUCKNOW showed the benefits of peaking at the right time of year, with the Magpies' 13.9 (87) to 4.1 (25) win over Orbost-Snowy Rovers seeing them break into the top four for the first time since round nine.
Having hovered around fourth position for the entire second half of the season, Lucknow resurrected its fortunes after a number of close losses in the first half of the year threatened to come back and haunt them in the long run. The Magpies got on a roll after round 11 and have only lost one match since, meaning seven of their 11 wins for the season have come in the past two months.
The Blues took the fight up to Lucknow in the first quarter, trailing by only two points.
The Magpies asserted their dominance on the contest in the second, kicking six goals while the Blues were kept score-less.
With the sting well and truly taken out of the game, Lucknow continued on its way after half-time. Another score-less quarter by Orbost-Snowy Rovers in the third saw it trailing by 66 points at the final break.
Strangely enough, Lucknow did not score a goal in the final term, in what would have made an interesting calculation in terms of percentage if Stratford had of won against Lindenow.
Nevertheless, the Magpies win pencilled them in for a cutthroat final this weekend against Wy Yung.
For Orbost-Snowy Rovers, the loss meant it joined three other senior teams across Gippsland to go through the season without a win. The Blues have battled admirably in 2019 and will be hoping to take small steps forward over the next couple of seasons.
Best players for Lucknow were Chris Hammond, Damien Hodder and Joel McNamara.
Hamish Nettleton was best for Orbost-Snowy Rovers. To put Nettleton's season in perspective, he finished the year with 23 goals in a side that only averaged half a dozen goals per game and was in the best players 15 times from 18 games.
Braeden Ross and hard nut Sam Morrow each kicked goals and were also prominent for the Blues.
EGFNL first semi-final
Sunday at Bairnsdale City Oval:
Seniors: Lucknow v Wy Yung, 2.15pm.
Reserves: Lucknow v Lakes Entrance, 12.20pm.
Under 17s: Wy Yung v Lindenow, 10.30am.