The longer they played, the more the Handsworth Royals senior girls soccer team needed to adjust their goals. Raise them, in fact, as high as they could go.
Coming off a 2015 season in which the team won just one game in North Shore league play, the Royals set the modestly optimistic goal of making it to the provincial championships this season. When they qualified for the tournament, they upped the ante a little by aiming for a top-three finish. And when their remarkable run saw them make it all the way into Saturday’s championship final in Delta, it was gold that was on their minds.
That last bump, however, was the one that tripped them up as the Royals ended their season with silver medals around their necks following a 1-0 loss to Surrey’s Fleetwood Park, a powerhouse program playing in its third straight AAA provincial final.
“From my point of view, once we knew we were in provincials, everything after that was kind of a bonus,” said first year head coach Brian Gibbard, who moved up to senior this season after coaching the Handsworth junior team the past three years. “On the one hand I think they were really disappointed to come so close to winning the championship and not quite getting there, and on the other hand when they started to gain some perspective they thought second place out of the entire province was still pretty good.”
Second place in the province seemed a distant dream after the Royals failed to make the playoffs last season. This year’s team featured many of the same players, and the early results weren’t stellar. Losses to tough North Shore opponents Argyle and Sentinel forced the Royals to run a long playoff gauntlet of three straight do-or-die games just to make it to provincials.
The Royals won them all, each more emphatic than the last. There was a tight 2-1 win over Sentinel, then 3-1 over Burnaby Central, and finally a 7-1 drubbing of New Westminster secondary, the top-ranked team in the Burnaby/New West zone. It was that showing that finally convinced the team that their sights needed to be set higher than simply making it to provincials.
“Having to play three sudden death, knockout games – they really started to play as a team, they really got gritty,” said Gibbard. “It showed that the girls have a lot of heart. As (assistant coach Scott Christie) says, they seem to play best when they’ve got a gun to their head.”
The high scoring routine ended, however, when the Royals got to provincials. They opened with a 0-0 tie against Chilliwack’s Sardis secondary followed by a tight 2-0 win over Victoria’s Reynolds secondary to set up a showdown against Richmond’s McMath to round out pool play. The winner would claim top spot in the pool and advance to the semifinals while the loser would drop to the consolation round. The game once again ended in a scoreless draw, but someone had to advance and so they went to a shootout. That’s where Handsworth goalie Danielle Desrochers took over, stopping three of the six shots she faced to send the Royals into the semifinals.
“I’ve never had a goalie do that before,” said Gibbard about his goalie’s shootout shot stopping. “(She) was outstanding.”
Handsworth took on Surrey’s Elgin Park in the semifinals Friday afternoon and caught the Orcas at a good time – it was grad night in Surrey, and that meant all of the team’s Grade 12s were out of commission. Goals were still scarce but Handsworth controlled the play en route to a 1-0 win and a berth in the final where they’d be hunting their first provincial title since 2009.
The game against Fleetwood Park was tight throughout but again the Royals couldn’t connect on a goal while the Dragons found the net once to claim their second title of the past three years.
“They got half a chance on a scrambling play and put it in,” said Gibbard. “We had a couple of clean, wide-open shots and missed. And that was the difference in the game. I though we dominated possession and played really, really good soccer. We just couldn’t put it away.”
Following the final Desrochers, who gave up just two goals in five games at the championships, was named to the Commissioner’s 16 tournament all-star team. Other standouts for Handsworth at the tournament included Jamie Foot, Olivia Hatch, Chelsey Fang and Hanna Davis.
“There were a lot of tears, of course, after the game – including me,” said Gibbard. “I’ve never done that – I’ve been coaching youth soccer for 15 years and I’ve never been teary after a game, but I was. … The team got better every game. They never gave up, they played right to the last whistle in every game.”
Gibbard said he and the rest of the Handsworth staff are aiming to get the Royals back to their normal status as a perennial provincial contender.
“We’re trying to create a program for girls Grade 8-12, one soccer program that all of the soccer players want to be part of,” he said, adding that the first goal is to make sure the players are having fun suiting up for the high school team. “I think we took big steps on that this year. There’s already enthusiasm for next year. … I think from our first preseason game right to the final our team got better and better. By the end of the tournament they looked like they were a very tight crew – they looked like 20 sisters out there. It was really fun to watch.”
The Royals will lose six Grade 12s to graduation this season but a strong core will be back next year with several talented juniors moving up, said Gibbard. Next season the goals will likely be higher right from the start.
“I think now that these kids have seen how much fun that provincial tournament is, they aren’t likely to be satisfied with anything less than getting into the tournament and doing well once we get there.”
• • •
Argyle also took part in the AAA provincial championships, putting up a 3-2 record which included a 2-1 victory over South Kamloops in the seventh-place game. Argyle’s Mya Fraser was named to the Commissioner’s 16 all-star team.
At the AA level the Seycove Seyhawks finished fifth at the provincial championships held last week in Campbell River. The Seyhawks finished second in their pool – losing to the eventual champs from L.V. Rogers secondary in Nelson – before winning their two playoffs games, including a matchup against Valleyview in the fifth-place game. Chloe Parker was Seycove’s representative on the Commissioner’s 16 team.