Cowichan Thunderbirds back from the brink

At first glance, it may not seem remarkable that the Cowichan Secondary School Thunderbirds have qualified for the provincial AAA boys rugby championships this year. After all, the squad makes regular appearances at the tournament, and this is the fourth year in a row that they have made the cut.

When you consider, however, that if not for the efforts of a group of senior players there wouldn’t have been a team this year at all, it becomes much more impressive.

Earlier in the school year, it looked possible that the Thunderbirds might not be fielding a boys rugby team this year. After their previous coaches opted not to run the program again this season after many years at the helm, the players themselves pressed on. Grade 12s Nathan Yu, Amish Dobson, Josh Jones and Ben Iwasyk headed up the effort to hold weekly training sessions, and put up posters in the school to summon players to the team, hoping someone would step up.

"We were pretty devastated that we weren’t going to have a season," Iwasyk, a flanker, recalls. "For many of us, it basically made our high school experience." Especially in their last seasons of high school, the seniors weren’t going to let it slip away easily.

"It was hard to see something so great die," inside centre Yu says.

"It’s our senior year playing Cowichan rugby," Dobson, a fullback, adds. "It was so much fun the other years, we hated to see it happen."

From the general camaraderie and teamwork to the atmosphere on the bus and being out in the springtime sun, there are many reasons the players were anxious to play rugby again this year.

"It’s something you don’t get with any other sport or in school," scrum-half Jones relates.

Even as it appeared they might not have a coach to lead the program, the players prepared as if there would be a season.

"We talked to our friends, put up posters everywhere, but we still didn’t have coaches yet," Dobson says. "We wanted to show that we did have players if we could find one."

"Most of the seniors were trying to organize practices," Jones says. "We were running them for a while. Then one of the juniors said his coach from the rugby club might be interested. He came down for a practice and said he was interested, and it just snowballed from there."

Former T-Bird stars Robin MacDowell and Thomas Kay were among the first to get word of the situation and attended a practice to encourage the players. Mac-Dowell, a former member of the national sevens team, tried to help the boys find a coach, and contacted the Cowichan Rugby Football Club for assistance. Yu also contacted Kenton McNutt, who leads junior programs at the CRFC, wondering if he might have some ideas.

Toward the end of January, with the season fast approaching, McNutt, Jake Teufel, Rogi Young and recent Cow High grad Noah Dobson offered their services as coaches.

The T-Birds missed out on tournaments, including the Island sevens and Scrumfest, and didn’t play any games outside of their league, but they found success in the games they did play.

"I think in a season we have three main goals," Jones relates. "We have a big rivalry with Kelsey, so to win that game is pretty huge. Then to beat Alberni in the first round of the playoffs, and making it to provincials kind of caps off the year."

It was a win over G.P. Vanier earlier this month that locked Cowichan into the provincial

tournament. Vanier had a stranglehold on the provincial berth, something Cowichan hadn’t been able to loosen in ages. Needless to say, that victory was a high point of the season so far.

"That was something we hadn’t done in our previous years of high school," Iwasyk points out. "It was a big personal goal for myself. At the beginning of the year, we didn’t expect to beat them. But we pulled through, and it was a great game."

The team has improved steadily over the course of the season, shocking some of the players with the level of success. The team is seeded ninth going into the provincial tournament. With a win in the first round this Saturday, they will be guaranteed at least a top-eight result.

"We’ve been able to field a pretty good team this year," Amish Dobson says. "It’s kind of surprising, when we were without coaches at the beginning of the year; we didn’t get as good a start. In the playoffs, we’re pulling everything together."

The T-Birds might have a chance to make history this year, and can definitely put forth the best final result in recent memory.

"As far as I know, no Cow High team has ever done better than ninth place," Dobson says. "I’m not sure of that, but it would be awesome to break ninth place and get in the top eight."

A top-eight finish is within the team’s grasp, and the players know what they need to do to achieve that.

"It will take a lot of hard work," Jones acknowledges. "We have to practice and work on a lot of things before provincials. If we play as a team and work on the little things, we’ll do well."

Regardless of where they finish, the players have already accomplished so much, just by keeping the program alive and reaching the level they have.

"We’ve come a long way," Yu says, "from a ragtag group of guys tossing the ball around in the winter."