The continuing strength of the field hockey programs in the Cowichan Valley was evident once again as Shawnigan Lake School, Cowichan Secondary and Frances Kelsey Secondary finished 1-2-3 at the Island AAA championships last weekend.
Shawnigan, in its first year at the AAA level after winning the provincial AA title in two of the last three seasons, beat Cowichan 1-0 in the tournament final to claim the Island title. Kelsey, which lost to Cowichan in the semifinals, placed third. All three teams will advance to the provincial championships in North Vancouver next week.
"It’s a real testament to what we do on the Island and what we do [in the Cowichan Valley] that we can have three teams vie for the top position," Shawnigan coach Kelly Koepp said.
Despite playing in the AAA bracket for larger schools this year, the Shawnigan players were confident they could compete with the rest of the Island, and weren’t surprised when they took the Island trophy.
"We had played Cowichan and Kelsey in previous years, so we knew we could compete," Koepp said.
It also didn’t surprise Koepp when the final between her team and Cowichan was a close battle.
"Cowichan was a very tough opponent. They play a tough, physical game, which our girls are learning to deal with," she said.
The game-winning goal came on a great individual effort by Casey Crowley late in the game. Cowichan had opportunities to score throughout the contest, but Shawnigan goaltender Leigh Campbell was up for the challenge each and every time.
Shawnigan’s depth was clearly on display throughout the tournament, as, despite winning their earlier games 8-0, 5-1 and 6-0, the team had just one game where the same player scored more than once.
"We have lots of depth in our group," Koepp said. "The starters and the players whose job it is to come off the bench all do their jobs. It makes for great team harmony on the field."
Pleased though they were to advance to the provincial championships, the Cowichan Thunderbirds weren’t satisfied with the result of the Island final.
"We weren’t happy," coach Perri Espeseth said. "We wished we could have won that game."
In the semifinal, Kelsey led Cowichan for the bulk of the game. "They scored in the first half, and held us off all the way through," Espeseth recalled. "It was so close for the majority of the game."
Brittany Smith scored with about six minutes left to send the game to a shootout, where Cowichan goalie Robin Fleming stopped every Kelsey shot, while the Cowichan shooters scored twice.
Throughout the tournament, sweeper Sara Lowes joined Fleming, Smith and Kelsey Goodman among Cowichan’s best players.
"Her level of hockey was at its best in the final two games," Espeseth said.
The T-Birds are optimistic they can continue their high level of play going into provincials.
"We really want to aim for the top three," Espeseth said. "If the girls keep themselves healthy and are mentally prepared, I think that’s something we can do. Obviously, our goal is to win provincials, but we don’t want to shoot too high."
Any of the Valley teams could be a contender for the provincial title, Koepp noted.
"All three teams can be very dangerous," she said.
Koepp would especially like to face one of the local rivals for the championship.
"We hope to meet Cowichan or Kelsey sometime in the tournament," she said. "We hope it’s in the final, but it might be in the semifinal."
Like Cowichan, Shawnigan is aiming for the podium.
"I think it’s reasonable for us to aim for the top four. We do want to ultimately aim for the final. I think we’ll do well in pool play, and then we need the girls to perform in the playoffs."