The 49ers’ Matt Arnett braces for a collision with Steelheads goalkeeper Preston Johnny during Saturday’s Tony Grover Cup play-in game. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

49ers slip past Steelheads in all-Cowichan Grover opener

The Cowichan 49ers will get to move on in the Tony Grover Cup tournament, but it comes at the expense of their crosstown friendly rivals, the Cowichan Steelheads.

The Niners moved into the first round of the tournament by winning 2-0 in a play-in game on Saturday that unfortunately eliminated the Steelheads from contention.

The 49ers have won the Tony Grover Cup as the Island’s top masters team in every year of their existence, and were determined not to let the Steelheads stand in their way. Defending tournament MVP Stu Barker, just returning to the lineup after missing time with an injury, got the Niners on the board at the 25-minute mark, slotting home a rebound off Todd Vass’s initial shot.

To no one’s surprise, things got spirited between the teams, who finished second and third in the masters A standings, but only three yellow cards were handed out: one to the 49ers and two to the Steelheads.

“The game heated up, as expected, with a lot of fouls both ways,” 49ers player Neall Rowlings commented. “The ref called a good game.”

Darcy Penner, who led the 49ers with 10 goals in league play, continued his strong offensive play with a goal in the second half on Saturday, flicking in a header off a corner kick by Tyler Hughes.

Former Steelheads player Jeff Mann, pressed into service as goalkeeper for the 49ers following the loss of Chris Mueller for the season, finished with the shutout, helped out by the solid play of the Niners’ backline.

“Jeff was so into the game, he promised me he would not let them score on him,” Rowlings said.

Steelheads player Curtis Flynn was pleased with his team’s performance in their third meeting against the 49ers this season.

“We played our most complete game of the year,” he said. “We battled all night long and we were in the game from the start. It took the 49ers’ best game to beat us. We had opportunities to score early and just couldn’t generate enough danger towards the 49ers net.”

Every player who stepped on the field was outstanding, Flynn added.

“Joel Leech was a beast all night long, along with all of our defensive line,” he said. “Brad Skene set a physical tone starting in the midfield. Patrick Brown and Cheko Soto both controlled the ball and were dangerous up front coming off the bench.”

The difference, in Flynn’s view, was a matter of a hair, or maybe a few hairs.

“In my opinion, we were one mullet away from squaring the game at one apiece in the second half,” he said. “I think there was too much mustache on the volley from outside the box. Either that, or the keeper was terribly out of position and just happened to be standing where the shot came.”

The way draws have played out for the two Cowichan teams this season — the first time they have played in the same division — no one will be surprised if they meet again in the provincial championship, when the Steelheads look forward to “dismantling the 49ers when it counts.”

“I was impressed with the Steelheads’ tenacity and intensity,” Rowlings said of the most recent meeting. “Knowing our luck, we will draw them in the provincial A tournament. The 49ers are finally finding our groove, this is the team that has came just shy of a provincial championship twice, you can feel it on the field.”

In the meantime, the 49ers will prepare for the Tony Grover Cup round of 16, which starts next Saturday when they host Vic West at the Sherman Road turf at 7 p.m.

“We have beaten them and tied them this season,” Rowlings said of Vic West. “We also seem to have close battles with them. Our coach [Kevin James] had a moving speech to kick us off this weekend; he reminded us that the league is over and that this is our cup to defend. Since our existence as a soccer team we have never lost this cup and we have zero intention to pass it over to anyone else.”

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