Soccer fans from the Cowichan Valley will be flocking to Royal Athletic Park in Victoria this Sunday.
Not only is Div. 1 team Cowichan LMG making its seventh appearance in the Sir John Jackson Cup final in the last eight years, and looking for its fifth title in the last seven years, but the Cowichan 49ers masters team will be playing for its first-ever Tony Grover Cup.
“The fans and support from Cowichan will be immense,” says Neall Rowlings, who leads the Cowichan Valley Soccer Association senior program. “And on the back of that accomplishment, Division 1 and Division 2 won their leagues. Also, [the 49ers] were second on goal differential. The club is feeding off itself with success and is overall a great positive cohesive unit performing at the highest level.”
The Tony Grover Cup final will go at noon, followed at 2:30 p.m. by the Jackson Cup championship game.
Based on the standings, both Cowichan teams should be favoured in their respective finals.
“[The 49ers] are a top-notch class-act group of guys, and with a leader like Kevin James — who has more medals than anyone still playing in the CVSA — his leadership and experience will clinch us a title,” Rowlings says. “The depth on this team is the best by far.”
Rowlings knows of what he speaks. He plays for the 49ers, although he will miss the final with an injury, and played for LMG in the 2010 Jackson Cup final.
“Division 1 has a very tight opponent,” Rowlings continues. “Nanaimo is hungry and they play a hard game. But this particular team hasn’t lost a Jackson Cup final yet. And we were told years ago when Gorge beat us that until you lose you don’t know what to expect.”
In just their first season of existence, the 49ers have found success in short order, reaching the cup final while also missing the Masters A league title by the smallest of margins. The team’s path to the championship match started with a 2-1 win over the CB Bobcats on Feb. 18, followed by a 4-0 win over Lakehill’s masters B team on March 4, and a 1-0 victory over SFFC Old School in the semifinal on March 18. That was Cowichan’s first win over Old School this year, but it was a costly one as they lost the hard-working Rowlings to a broken leg late in the game.
The Niners will meet Vic West in the final. Vic West is a bit of a Cinderella story, coming out of the masters B division to upset Gorge’s masters A team on their way to the big game. The Cowichan team knows to expect a challenge on Sunday.
“They have some very good players,” 49ers head coach Kevin James says. “It’s not a fluke by any means. Just because they’re out of the B division, we’re not taking them lightly at all.”
The 49ers haven’t played Vic West yet this year, so they’ll just follow the game plan that has brought them success so far this season.
“We’ll play the style we’ve played all year,” James says. “And make adjustments according to how the game goes.”
Regardless of the result of their final, the 49ers plan to stick around afterward and cheer on LMG. Many 49ers players have connections to the Div. 1 team, including James, who won Jackson Cups with LMG as a goalkeeper and assistant coach, and striker Stu Barker, who won four Jackson Cups with LMG.
“We all have a lot of old friends and teammates on that team. Glen [Martin] and Tyler [Hughes] have done a great job again, winning the league and getting to the final,” he said. “Those things aren’t easy to do, that’s for sure.”
LMG will face a familiar foe in the final as they take on Nanaimo FC in the first Jackson Cup championship game without a Victoria-area team since the 1995-96 season.
Nanaimo United beat Powell River 2-1 on penalties that year to win their first Jackson Cup. Nanaimo won again in 1999, and hasn’t hoisted the cup since.
By contrast, Cowichan LMG has dominated the tournament in recent years, appearing in six of the last seven finals — this will be their seventh — and winning in 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016.
LMG won the Vancouver Island Soccer League’s top division this year — the team’s third consecutive Garrison Cup title — while Nanaimo finished fourth. Cowichan beat Nanaimo 3-2 in Nanaimo on Oct. 22 and 4-1 in Duncan on Jan. 27, but Martin isn’t counting on an easy win on Sunday.
“Every time we play Nanaimo, it’s a hard game,” he says. “They’re a hard-working team. They’re a very tactical and technical team. We’re expecting a very tough game.”
One of Cowichan’s biggest advantages over Nanaimo is experience. While most Cowichan players have felt the pressure of playing in the biggest game on the Island, no player on Nanaimo has been in the final. LMG also boasts a deep lineup.
“We’re experienced, and we have depth on our bench,” Martin says. “In a Jackson Cup final, there’s no way you don’t go to your bench. The field is bumpy and tiring. We have to use the depth in our lineup. I think the team with the best guys on its bench is going to be the winners.”
As much as Cowichan has seen of the trophy in the last few years, Martin insists that the Jackson Cup still hasn’t lost its lustre.
“A lot of guys on our team haven’t won it,” he pointed out. “The guys love this thing. Every time you win it, it’s history. It never gets old. If it ever gets old, it’s time to get out.”