The Cape Winelands club finished third in the NFD to secure a place in play-offs, along with fellow NFD side Black Leopards and PSL team Baroka. The winner of the competition is promoted to the top-flight PSL.
In a demanding campaign such as this, in which all three sides will be salivating with desperation and ambition, character and courage will be very important. And, in yesterday’s opening fixture, Stellenbosch proved they have those traits in spades. Twice they went behind to the PSL opposition they were facing, and twice they rattled back to level.
Wednesday’s valiant performance augurs well for the rest of their campaign. If anything, Stellenbosch were undone by the tentative manner in which they started the game. It was a nervy opening from the home side and, as a result, Baroka could have scored twice inside the opening five minutes.
The NFD team’s defence struggled to stay compact early on, but, fortunately, both Maboke Matlakala and Victor Letsoala squandered the opportunities that came Baroka’s way.
After that initial period, in which they struggled to find their feet, the Western Cape team gradually got going – and they were unlucky not to take the lead when Diego Brown missed an inviting chance inside the penalty area in the 30th minute.
It was Baroka who drew first blood, however, when Nkosinathi Ndlovu’s deep cross allowed Mxolisi Kunene to head in at far post with six minutes to go before half-time.
Stellenbosch then showed the measure of their determination as they stormed back with a wonderful equaliser from Jarrod Moroole four minutes later, the hardworking midfield lashing in a left-foot volley that evaded the outstretched hands of Baroka goalkeeper Oscarine Masuluke. If the opening stages were a bit scrappy, the second period was certainly better.
Both teams settled into a nice rhythm, they went for broke, and there was a fantastic energy and intensity about the game. It was again Baroka who edged in front 10 minutes into the second half when Ndlovu curled in a delightful freekick that went in off the underside of the crossbar. But, again, Stellenbosch never let allowed their heads to drop.
The indomitable spirit of their players continued to shine through. In fact, the setback served only to inspire them to lift their game even more. The Cape side’s coach Sammy Troughton made his attacking intentions known by withdrawing rightback Matthew Rowell for striker Cleophas Dube. It nearly had immediate dividends when Dube headed wide with his first touch of the ball.
But, by then 62nd minute, Stellenbosch were level at 2-2. Like Baroka, they scored via a free-kick, when Brown whipped the ball to the far post, where David Booysen was lurking to head in the valuable equaliser.
Things opened up and it led to a frenetic close to the final stages of the game as both teams looked to win at the death. Despite goalmouth action at both ends, the encounter ended all-square at 2-2, which was probably a fair reflection of the action on offer.
Next up for Stellenbosch will be Black Leopards, who they face in Venda on Saturday.