THE Handsworth senior boys soccer team may have taken the back door into the provincial championships - the tournament begins tomorrow in Burnaby - but as far as the Royals are concerned there's nothing wrong with going in with a low profile.
"I think we've got a good chance," said head coach Cosmo Valente. "Are we the underdog? Probably, but I like that. I like being low on the radar."
The Royals finished second in the North Shore AAA league behind West Vancouver, losing both their regular season matchups against the Highlanders. That put Handsworth on the long road through the playoffs, facing three must-win games.
What followed were three one-goal victories that put Handsworth into provincials the hard way. First up was Argyle with the Royals grinding out a 2-1 win. Next came Burnaby's Byrne Creek and a 0-0 tie that the Royals solved in a shootout. Finally, the rematch - Handsworth versus West Van for the district's last provincial berth. After falling to the Highlanders twice before, the Royals were happy to flip the score line when it mattered most, claiming a 1-0 win to earn a spot in the big show.
"Sweet redemption - that's what I call it," said Valente. "Another heated, tough game. I thought we were the better team at the end of the day. I mean no disrespect to them, they're a great team, they don't quit till the end. I think second half we didn't give them much and it was a good 1-0 victory for us."
Now that the Royals are heading to provincials, their tough playoff test has turned into a blessing - after their two early-season stumbles they're now riding a six-game win streak.
"We haven't changed anything from Day 1, we've stuck to our formation, stuck to our tactics," said Valente. The Royals, loaded with Grade 12 talent, will have their hands full in their first game when they take on the defending champions from Charles Best secondary Thursday at 11 a.m. at Burnaby Lake West Sports Complex. Their other round robin matchups are against Quesnel's Correlieu secondary Thursday at 2: 45 p.m. and Kitsilano secondary Friday at 9 a.m.
"If we're going to advance anywhere in this tournament we've got to win the first game, no question," said Valente. "We feel good, the boys are confident . . . (but) there's not going to be any easy games. When you get to this level of the tournament obviously every team has proved themselves to get to the final 16."
The Highlanders, meanwhile, are ruing their missed opportunities. After a stellar regular season West Van had two shots to score one playoff win to get to provincials but fell short in both. Missing their top goal scorer due to injury, their offence sputtered as they lost to Burnaby South in a shootout following a 0-0 tie before losing 1-0 to the Royals.
"They're gutted, absolutely devastated. They knew the ultimate goal was to get to provincials," West Van head coach Stew Baker said about his players following the loss to Handsworth.
The Highlanders did get to end their season on a high note, knocking off St. Thomas Aquinas 2-1 Nov. 13 to claim the North Shore Trophy Championship in a battle between the regular season AA and AAA league winners.
"Unfortunately we didn't qualify for provincials but through that disappointment we were able to finish the season on a good note," said Baker. This was West Van's first North Shore title since 1998, a happy ending to a bittersweet season for the Highlanders.
"To me it's mind-boggling that we've won the league, we've won the championship but we're not going to provincials," said Baker. "It's just the nature of the game, I guess."