Cowichan United hadn’t faced much of a challenge from Vic West all season.
In three Vancouver Island Soccer League U21 games this year, Cowichan outscored Vic West 13-3. But coach Tyler Hughes expected things to be different when the teams squared off in the George Smith Cup final at Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park on Saturday.
He was correct, but even though the match was the closest of the teams’ four meetings this year, Cowichan won yet again, claiming the cup with a 1-0 victory.
This was United’s first season in the U21 league, and the team was the youngest in the circuit this season, but they still emerged as Island champions.
“I think some of the younger guys weren’t sure what to expect,” Cowichan head coach Tyler Hughes said. “It was the biggest stage they’d ever played on for a lot of the guys.”
The Cowichan players’ lack of experience was visible to Hughes in the early going, but the team held on.
“Vic West came out pretty strong,” he said. “The first 25 minutes, our guys were nervous, for sure. Vic West had one or two good chances to get the lead on us.”
Goalkeeper Braeden Nash was a big reason the game was as close as it was in the early going, earning his second shutout of the year, his first having come earlier this month against a shorthanded and demoralized Bays United team.
“Early in the game, he made some good saves he needed to make,” Hughes said. “As we started to get into the game a bit more, he wasn’t as busy. He definitely helped stave off attacks in the early going.”
Late in the first half, Cowichan captain Tyson Black sent a long ball into the Vic West box, where one of their defenders headed the ball. It landed at the feet of Logan Kits, who scored.
“It was probably the first time we had the ball in their end box,” Hughes said. “He was in the right spot at the right time, and he has a nose for the goal.”
Kits, who was named MVP at the completion of the match, led the U21 league with 18 goals this season, so it was a good bet that he would continue to be dangerous in the cup final.
“Logan has shown time and again that he is one of, if not the strongest striker in the league,” Hughes said. “He makes goals out of nothing.”
Hughes felt his team was “lucky” to hold a 1-0 halftime lead.
“We definitely weren’t dominating the game,” he said “You could tell it was a nervous group.”
Cowichan’s youth was probably a factor, the coach allowed, as they encountered a bigger, stronger and more physical Vic West team.
“I talked with the Vic West coach after the game, and all of his players are in university,” Hughes said. “Our kids, with the exception of maybe three, are all in high school. This was their first time in a men’s league, and that’s a big step, so I’m sure we were nervous.
“That’s part of the experience: getting accustomed to what to expect.”
The Cowichan players did adjust to the game as time went on.
“After 25 or 30 minutes, everybody started to settle down,” Hughes said.
“We talked at the half about some things we were starting to get away from. We started to play better in the second half.”
The game was still close in the second half, but Cowichan found a way to preserve the lead.
“As the game went on, they obviously had to start pushing a bit more,” Hughes said. “But they didn’t threaten Braeden with too many chances. We started to control the game a bit more.”
Hughes gave a lot of credit for the win to the leaders on his team, including captain Tyson Black, who received the hard hat as Cowichan’s hardest worker in the match.
“He’s an animal,” Hughes said. “The guy’s a beast. He leads by example. He helped lead the team back into the game.”
For his part, Black was pleased with the way the team performed.
“I’m happy with the outcome,” the captain said. “We went into this game as a team and battled hard right down till the last second. It’s one of the best games I’ve seen our team play as a whole.”
Cowichan went into the game with only two subs, as five players were either injured or on vacation, but the players in attendance were up to the task.
“Everyone played a big part and contributed,” Hughes said.
The season isn’t over yet for United, who qualified for the provincial championships as a George Smith Cup finalist. The draw won’t be held until April 9, but Hughes is looking forward to another tournament.
“It’s another chance to continue the season, continue our training,” he said. “It’s a step in the development of the team. We’re excited to play different opponents. With the team we’ve got, I think anything is possible.”