THIS could be some bad news for the rest of the AAA field hockey teams in British Columbia - the Handsworth Royals have figured out how to win titles.
The Royals claimed their second consecutive provincial AAA field hockey banner last weekend - also the second in school history - scrapping to the top in a tough tournament in Coquitlam Nov. 14-16 to prove that they're still the team to beat.
For nearly a decade Handsworth head coach Paul Winstanley guided his team to the provincial championships without ever making it to the medal round. The Royals were good but never championship good. That all changed last year when a quartet of university-bound Grade 12 superstars led the team to an undefeated season to finally claim the crown. Hannah Haughn, already a senior national team player while still in high school, was the catalyst. This fall the diminutive dynamo earned MVP honours while leading the University of British Columbia to a CIS national title as a rookie.
"The four Grade 12s last year were just so good that I wasn't able to screw it up," said Winstanley with a laugh. "They were just too good to not win. . . . They were just such great leaders and such great players, we just weren't going to be denied."
This year was a little different. The Royals still had excellent players to call upon but they now had a new weapon to wield when the games got tough: a winning tradition.
Fourteen players from last year's team were back for more this season and with all that championship experience to rely on, Handsworth was the coolest team on turf in this year's tournament.
"It was critical because they knew how tough it is to win provincials," Winstanley said of the importance of having championship-winning veterans. "They were just determined not to lose. They have enough technical skill and we have enough depth through the whole 18 to win so it became more a matter about the mental side and being willing to put in the work. They did that, they just decided on their own that they weren't going to be denied. . . . Even when it was 0-0 in a game with 15-20 minutes left they never panicked, they just got on with it. It was just high work rate, determination, taking care of their own responsibilities - it was a really mature performance."
Things did get tough in this year's provincials. The Royals were tested in the opening round by their tough North Shore rivals from West Van secondary. The game remained scoreless late into the second half before Handsworth super sniper Steph Norlander potted a pair of goals off of short corners to give the Royals a 2-0 win.
Next came the do-or-die playoffs and the Royals again were able to pull out wins after being pressed to the edge. First came a 1-0 quarterfinal win over Kelowna with Norlander's penalty stroke standing up as the game's only goal. The semifinals saw Handsworth score another 1-0 win, this time over South Delta.
"That was intense," said Winstanley. "They have a junior national goalie and I think their strategy was to try and get to a shootout and then run their luck at the shootout."
The final against a tough young Cowichan team also started out close with Handsworth holding a slim 1-0 lead at halftime. Finally the flood gates opened for the Royals in the second half as they poured in three more goals to claim the title with a 4-0 win.
"It always felt like we were going to score goals at some point - we had a lot of missed chances in those games and short corners and a lot of possession without scoring," said Winstanley. "It sort of all came together. . . . When we got the third goal with 15 minutes or so there was a big relief."
The final whistle blew and the jubilant Royals collected their hardware. The team may not have had the transcendent talent of last year's squad but there was no shortage of stars. Norlander continued her goal-scoring glut in the final, notching two more to give her 28 for the season. Sophie Plasteras, Norlander's best friend who will join her next season playing NCAA field hockey at the University of Iowa, controlled the midfield for the Royals.
"Sophie had an incredible tournament in centre mid," said Winstanley. "She just logged miles and miles. Huge heart, just working so hard, combined with her skill. She was huge. . . . (And) of course Steph in terms of leadership up front and her scoring ability - those two were strong."
Sweeper Mia Watson, centre back Lexy Dong and goalie Lena Benwood - all Grade 11 players - teamed up to play shut down defence. Winstanley also highlighted the exceptional depth of his team - 14 of the 16 non-goalies on his roster scored at least once this season as the Royals notched a total of 70 goals while giving up just eight.
With seven Grade 11s expected to be back next year along with a talented crop of youngsters coming off of another North Shore junior title, the Royals are hoping to keep the winning tradition rolling.
"It'll be a strong team next year," said Winstanley, adding that even with the wins starting to pile up there are never any guarantees. "That's the interesting thing about high school sports - there's so much turnover, it's a challenge every year."
North Vancouver's Argyle secondary finished the provincial tournament in sixth spot while West Van placed eighth.