The Cowichan 49ers’ three-year reign as Tony Grover Cup champions came to an end on Saturday during an emotional day for Vancouver Island masters soccer at Westhills Stadium.
Since the 49ers were founded, the team had never lost a Tony Grover Cup final, but they went into Saturday’s game as underdogs, facing a UVic Alumni team that hadn’t surrendered a point in the standings all season.
The Cowichan club hadn’t played since winning their quarter-final match on Feb. 29, just before all soccer in B.C. was shut down. Even once the return to play was announced, they couldn’t train, first because of COVID-19, then because of air-quality concerns due to smoke from forest fires in the U.S. Even the game-day warm-up was cancelled.
“It was the most exhausting thing ever,” Cowichan player/manager Neall Rowlings stated.
The teams honoured Dave Ravenhill, a Vancouver Island soccer legend whose five-decade career as a player and coach included a provincial championship with UVic Alumni in 2008. Ravenhill died of a heart attack in July, and the Vancouver Island Soccer League has named the Masters A league championship trophy in his memory.
The game itself was “weird,” in Rowlings’ words.
“No warm-up and some different rules, but it was amazing to get on the field and compete again,” he said.
UVic opened the scoring off a diving header from Dean Anderson in the 17th minute. Rowlings admitted UVic was the better team for most of the first half, but the 49ers did have their chances, including a close-range opportunity from Matt Arnett that former Cowichan goalkeeper Rob McIntyre made a big stop on.
UVic scored again early in the second half to go up 2-0. McIntyre robbed Arnett on another shot from in close, but finally Tyler Hughes beat the UVic keeper on a free kick in the 79th minute.
“He curled it in from about 26 yards away with his left foot, right into the top corner,” Rowlings reported. “It was a very nice goal. I don’t like to give him too many compliments, but it was a goal to remember.”
Cowichan came close a few more times, but couldn’t draw even, and when the clock ran out on two tired sides, UVic prevailed 2-1, becoming the first team to ever beat the 49ers in a Tony Grover Cup final.
In addition to Arnett and Hughes, the 49ers also got a standout performance from Chris Muller in goal, and head coach Kevin James did a remarkable job of guiding the team through a challenging situation.
The new VISL season is expected to begin on the weekend of Oct. 2, with teams playing home-and-home series in cohorts of four before taking two weeks off and forming new cohorts. The schedule should be released soon.