Cowichan Valley soccer fans have a lot to be excited about this weekend.
While Cowichan LMG will be sitting out the Jackson Cup final for only the second time in the last nine years, two other clubs from the Valley will be battling at Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park for their respective cups.
Cowichan United, the upstart U21 team, will play for the George Smith Cup on Saturday. The following day, the Cowichan Craig Street 49ers masters A team will attempt to defend their Tony Grover Cup title.
The teams may be years apart in terms of age, but they have no shortage of connections. United head coach Tyler Hughes also plays for the 49ers, and was once a teammate of 49ers head coach Kevin James with Cowichan’s Div. 1 squad. United assistant coaches Ryan Fusick and Darcy Kulai also play for the 49ers, and Fusick’s sons, Michael and Nic, play for United, although Michael will be sitting his team’s cup final out with a sprained ankle.
The teams also share the honour of qualifying for a cup final in their first year of existence: the 49ers achieved that feat last season, and United has matched it this year.
In preparation for their cup games this weekend, the teams squared off in a friendly match last Thursday, mostly to get used to playing on grass, something neither squad has done much of this season, but which they will both have to do at R.A.P.
The 49ers won the exhibition match 3-0, but neither team was concerned about the final score.
“The result didn’t mean a thing,” James said. “It was beneficial for both teams, for sure. We’re doing everything to get used to the surface.”
The grass surface will create unpredictable bounces and prevent the perfect rolls that players are used to, and players can become complacent from playing on turf. The teams’ opponents in the cup finals will be in the same boat, as they’ve all played and trained on turf all season, so no one is concerned about making the transition,
“Grass is grass,” James said. “We’ve played on it our whole lives.”
The 49ers won the Tony Grover Cup final a year ago after just missing on the masters A league title based on goal-differential. They came back with a vengeange this season, going 15-1-1 to clearly win the league title, then won three playoff games to return to the cup final. They will also contend for the provincial championship starting next month.
“We’ve worked all season to win the league after the unfortunate way we lost the league last year,” James said. “We set the goal to win the Grover, and we’ve got another goal after this game.”
The 49ers’ opponents in the cup final will be Gorge Backfit, who finished second in the masters A division this year, and were also the only team Cowichan didn’t beat. Gorge won 2-0 in the first meeting between the teams, Cowichan’s home opener in September, and they played to a 1-1 draw in December.
James isn’t concerned about his team’s recent history with Gorge, and has full confidence in his players. It’s all going to come down to who brings their best game to R.A.P. on Sunday.
“We’re two evenly matched teams on the day,” the coach said. “Whoever shows up and wants it more will definitely have a chance to win it.”
Cowichan United, meanwhile, had little trouble during league play against their George Smith Cup opponents. Cowichan defeated Vic West 2-1 in September, 5-1 in November, and 6-1 in January. They’re not counting on things being similarly easy in the cup final, however.
“In our preparations this week, we’re not talking about how easily we’ve beaten them or that we’ve beaten them three times in a row,” Hughes said. “We’re preparing for a tough game. It will be on grass. A cup final is a one-off game. It’s gonna be a tough match.”
United finished third in the U21 league with a 10-6-2 record, led by Logan Kits, whose 18 goals were a league high. When the season began, Hughes and his assistant coaches didn’t know what to expect from their team, but quickly found out that they had a contender on their hands.
“We’re happy with the way things are going,” Hughes said. “Our expectation going in is to win the final.”
Despite being the youngest team in the league, Cowichan marched through the George Smith Cup playoffs, beating Lakehill 3-2 in the quarter-finals and Prospect Lake 2-1 in the semis.
“It’s always difficult to get to a cup final,” Hughes said. “We had to win two games, and they were both against teams in the top four, and both at their home. We had arguably the toughest draw in the league. I’ve got to say, we deserve to be there.”
Hughes, who won four Jackson Cup championships with Cowichan LMG, sees a lot of similarities between that team and his U21 squad, and hopes Cowichan soccer fans throw their support behind his team in the same fashion.
“We have a young team with a lot of heart,” he said. “It reminds me of a lot of the Div. 1 teams we’ve had in the final. It would be great to see some support and get a cup win.”
Last year, the 49ers benefitted from the fact that LMG was playing in the Jackson Cup final immediately after their game, so a lot of fans turned out for the double feature. That may not be the case again this year, but James is optimistic that fans will still make the trip to Victoria.
“We had a great turnout last year,” he said. “With the [Division] Ones not in it this year, it’s unfortunate, but we’re hoping a lot of the supporters the Ones would have got at the at the Jackson Cup will set their schedules and come down. The more fans we have out, the better. Guys on the pitch are always aware of what’s going on in the stands. Having people egging you on certainly helps.”
Cowichan United plays in the George Smith Cup final at R.A.P. on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. The Craig Street 49ers play in the Tony Grover Cup final on the same pitch at noon on Sunday.