The Cowichan Secondary Thunderbirds went to the brink three times during the playoff round at the Bridgman Cup and survived to win the prestigious field hockey tournament for the second time in the last three years.
A perfect shootout round in the tournament final gave the T-Birds the title as the first three Cowichan shooters — Emma Dame, Jenna Berard and Sophia Murray — all scored, while goalie Robin Fleming turned aside all three Crofton House shooters.
Shootouts aren’t always the perfect format for deciding big games, but Cowichan coach Perri Espeseth knew her team had it in them to prevail.
“I was confident with the level of play and how much passion we had,” she said. “No one wants to win or lose in shootouts, but we do really well. Our goalie, Robin Fleming, is outstanding.”
Just as important to Espeseth as winning the tournament was the way her team improved steadily over the hectic weekend at the University of Victoria.
“We really developed,” she said. “The format, which is six games in three days, mimics what provincials is like. It’s exhausting, but we had to grow as a team, and build up to the intensity to where we wanted, to win the tournament.
“From Friday to Saturday, the girls realized they could have played better as a team. Sunday, it was all there. It’s important they were able to recognize that.”
From pool play, the T-Birds went on to their first playoff game on Saturday afternoon, facing Argyle in a relentless and unforgiving downpour. The turf couldn’t absorb the water as fast as it was falling, creating puddles in front of the crease that slowed down the ball and caused problems for the shooters on both teams. The shootout in that game went to sudden death, but Fleming and the Cowichan shooters held on to win and advance to the semifinal.
The Sunday morning semifinal against Handsworth was scoreless through regulation time before the T-Birds emerged victorious in the shootout.
“It was a great game on both teams’ parts,” Espeseth said. “We weren’t able to put the ball away in free play.”
Cowichan’s composure was key in both the semifinal and final, as the stands filled with fans and the atmosphere got significantly louder.
“The girls showed a lot of character,” Espeseth said. “For younger players, that can be really challenging, but they did fantastic.”
Crofton House, who Cowichan faced in the final, is a AA private school that the T-Birds won’t face again this year. The Cowichan players were commended by the coach of Handsworth, the team they defeated in the semis, for their class in the physical final.
“There were a lot of cards handed out in that game, but Cow High didn’t get one of them,” a proud Espeseth pointed out.
Shawnigan Lake School and Frances Kelsey both ended up in the consolation round and ended up squaring off in the consolation final, where Shawnigan edged Kelsey 2-1 to place ninth overall.
Shawnigan opened the scoring with a goal by Annika Kleinschmidt, but Kelsey replied on a short corner goal by Hannah Craig. With less than a minute to go, Annalena Rump scored the decisive goal for Shawnigan on another short corner.
“Both teams fought hard,” Shawnigan coach Kelly Koepp said. “We’ve seen them a couple of times, and they’ve always been very close games. It was a good way to end the tournament.”
Kelsey coach Ali Andersen was proud of her team’s performance.
“The girls played with passion and heart,” she said. “They gave it their all and left everything on the field.”
The tournament was a “huge learning experience” for Shawnigan, which lost nine starters from last year’s provincial championship team. Although they missed the championship round at the Bridgman, it was by the slightest of margins.
“Looking back at pool play, it really came down to one goal that made the difference between going to the playoffs and going to the consolation round,” Koepp said. “The teams are so close, our players are learning that a five-minute lapse in one game can be the difference between going to the playoffs and going to the consolation.”
The story was the same with Kelsey.
“We were in a very evenly matched pool,” Andersen said. “Any team could have gone through. All the games were 0-0 or 1-0.”
Koepp was pleased to see the other Valley teams succeed at the tournament.
“If we’re not going to win the Bridgman Cup, I’m glad Cowichan did, and I’m glad we played Kelsey in the consolation final,” she said. “There’s a good, friendly rivalry between all three teams.”
Shawnigan will head to the UBC Tier 1 Tournament this weekend where they will face several of the same teams that attended the Bridgman Cup with an opportunity to practice what didn’t work out last week.
All three area AAA teams will be in action at the Island championships on Oct. 30 and 31, which the T-Birds are hosting, although the games will be played at Shawnigan Lake School.