With one victory on Sunday afternoon, Cowichan United achieved two of the goals they had set for their debut U21 soccer campaign.
By beating Prospect Lake 2-1 at Layritz Park, the team qualified for the George Smith Cup final, and as a cup finalist, earned a berth in the provincial championships.
“Both of them were goals we wanted to achieve,” Cowichan head coach Tyler Hughes said. “Getting to provincials is an important step. It keeps our season going and allow us to compete against the top teams from the Mainland.”
Playing for the George Smith Cup comes with prestige and history, and a chance to compete in front of a big crowd at Royal Athletic Park, which Hughes calls “the soccer hub of Victoria.”
“It will be a good experience for the kids,” he said. “to play in a cup final atmosphere.”
Cowichan was playing without leading goalscorer Logan Kits on Sunday, as he served a suspension from a previous cup match. Nevertheless, forwards Oliver Bontkes and Devin Jack got off to a good start in the match, creating trouble for the Prospect Lake defenders. Jack opened the scoring when he caused a turnover and capitalized on the ensuing breakaway with a lob over the goalkeeper. Bontkes added another five minutes later, taking a pass from Liam Thibodeau-Perry, then burying the rebound of his own shot.
“The two of them deserved their goals,” Hughes said. “They had a good start and caused problems for the Prospect Lake backline.”
Cowichan took the 2-0 lead into halftime.
“We were feeling confident,” Hughes recalled. “They had some chances but we felt like we were in control.”
Among the halftime subs were brothers Michael and Nic Fusick, who had just returned the night before from a family trip to Scotland, but arrived at the field ready for action.
“[Prospect] started to come out stronger in the second half,” Hughes said. “But we were confident with a two-goal lead.”
Prospect Lake made it a one-goal game with about 20 minutes to go. Although their opponents generated some momentum, Cowichan clung to their lead.
“The last 20 minutes, we were hanging on, defending, blocking shots,” Hughes remarked. “We managed to stave them off.”
Captain Tyson Black was named Man of the Match.
“He worked his socks off in the middle,” Hughes said. “He was a big inspiration to the guys on this day, for sure.”
This might be United’s first season, but it’s no surprise to see them in contention for a title.
“We don’t see ourselves as the underdog or lucky to be here,” Hughes said. “We deserve to be here, and we’ll give it a go.”
Cowichan’s opponent in the final at R.A.P on March 24 will be Vic West. Vic West finished sixth in the seven-team U21 league, and Cowichan won all three meetings between the teams this season: 2-1 in the season opener, 5-1 in early November, and 6-1 in late January.
“You can’t look at previous meetings,” Hughes said. “We’re expecting a physical battle. They can be a tough team to play against. They have older, more experienced players. Our games were closer than the score lines would reflect. In a cup final, it’s a one-off game; anything can happen. The underdog gets motivated. It doesn’t matter what place you’re in. It’s 90 minutes. One goal can make all the difference.”
Before the George Smith Cup final, Cowichan United has one league game left to play, against Lakehill next Sunday at Braefoot Park. With a win, Cowichan will finish second in the U21 league, while a loss or a tie will put them third. Even though they’ve already locked up a berth in provincials, Cowichan doesn’t plan to take the weekend off.
“That’s not something we want to do,” Hughes said. “Whenever you play, especially a league game, you need to make sure you put the effort in to win.”