As expected, teams from the Cowichan Valley took the top three spots at the Island AAA girls field hockey championships last weekend.
Cowichan Secondary edged past Shawnigan Lake School in a tight race for first place, while Frances Kelsey placed a close third.
All three teams locked up berths at the provincial tournament, which they are teaming up to host later this month.
The battle for first place came down to the final game of the five-team round-robin tournament, which also included Mount Douglas and Oak Bay.
A tie would have been enough for Shawnigan Lake’s squad to lock up the Island title, but Cowichan managed to hold off Shawnigan’s second-half onslaught to win 1-0.
“It basically came down to points for and against,” Cowichan coach Perri Espeseth said. “If they had tied us, they would have had one more point, but we won, so we had one extra point.”
The teams were well-balanced during the first half, but Cowichan scored on a quick counterattack after Shawnigan missed on a penalty corner, with Grade 11 player Kyla Birch putting the ball in the net.
Shawnigan came out strong in the second half, but couldn’t find the equalizer.
“I’ve never seen them play so well,” Shawnigan assistant coach Kelly Koepp said.
“Cowichan couldn’t get anywhere near the 50-metre line for the last 15 or 20 minutes,” Koepp added. “We had about five huge chances to score. The girls just need to learn how to reward themselves.”
Espeseth was pleased with the way her team played against the physical Shawnigan squad.
“I was really proud of the way the girls played,” she said.
“They do a lot of man-to-man marking, but we were able to match it. We came out with a lot of confidence. We started the game with a lot of intensity, which I think helped.”
Although they finished second and secured a place in provincials, there was still a tinge of disappointment for Shawnigan.
“It was heartbreaking, because it was in our hands to win the tournament,” Koepp said.
The Frances Kelsey Breakers were a close third after tying Cowichan and losing to Shawnigan on a late goal.
“We expected that result, so we’re happy with that,” coach Ali Andersen said. “It was so close once again. It was who showed up to each game that decided who won.”
Kelsey tied Cowichan 2-2 on a short corner at the very end of the game.
Even though time had expired, the short corner, which was called in the final seconds, still had to be played. Cowichan led 2-0 and looked certain to win, but with about seven minutes Andersen switched her lineup around “for fun,” and it worked.
“It was very exciting for the girls,” Andersen said. “It gave them the confidence boost they needed. The bounces don’t usually go our way, so it was nice to have the tides turn a bit.”
The game was also a learning experience for the Cowichan Thunderbirds.
“That kind of set the girls back a bit,” Espeseth said. “It showed them that it’s not over till it’s over.”
Shawnigan beat Kelsey 2-1 on an admittedly ugly goal in the last minute of the game. So ugly, in fact, that Shawnigan apologized to Kelsey afterwards.
“It should have been our game, but we had a momentary lapse,” Andersen said.
Cowichan’s standouts included Emma Dame, Sara Goodman and captain Sophia Murray.
“Sophia has moved into centre midfield, and she’s doing a very good job of it,” Espeseth said.
Maria Murray continued her season-long trend of improvement at the Island tournament, and Annika Kleinschmidt also stood out on a Shawnigan team that isn’t built around stars.
“The thing about our team this year is that there is no one main player,” Koepp said. “This really is a team effort.”
In addition to perennial standout Hannah Craig, Kelsey also got excellent play from Julianna Cross and Grade 9 rookie Rayanne Pearson.
“She played with such passion,” Andersen said of Pearson. “Her stick skills are starting to develop to match up with the older girls.”
All three Cowichan Valley teams are hosting the provincial championships at Shawnigan Lake School and the Cowichan Sportsplex next week, starting Wednesday, Nov. 12.