The upstart St. Thomas Aquinas Fighting Saints tackled a string of must-wins and big wins over the past three weeks to end up as the bronze medal winners at the senior boys AA provincial championships.
The Saints claimed their hardware with a 2-1 win over Port Coquitlam’s Archbishop Carney in the consolation final played Wednesday at Burnaby Lake Sports Complex West. The podium showing came as a surprise to many, as the Saints were not even the top seed coming off the North Shore – that distinction belonged to Windsor – and few observers were expecting to see STA battling with the big boys at the provincial championships.
“I like the idea of flying under the radar,” said STA coach Loui Salituro with a laugh. “You just do your things – if you take teams by surprise, then great. … Not being that top-seeded team, to go in and medal is a big accomplishment. Every once in a while you have those Cinderella stories. I think this one is noteworthy.”
Wednesday’s win ended a tough run that began nearly three weeks prior, when STA faced Sutherland Nov. 2 in a must-win playoff game. The teams finished second and third in the North Shore AA league, and only one could go on to the provincial playdowns against the Burnaby/New West zone.
“(Sutherland) is a team that easily could have placed as high as we did at provincials,” said Salituro, who co-coaches the team along with Fernando Grossling. “They’re a fantastic team.”
The game ended 1-1, forcing STA and Sutherland into a winner-goes-on, loser goes-home shootout.
In the end it was a comfortable shootout win for STA, as star goalkeeper and team captain Sam Boppart made three saves and the Saints won it 3-0. STA completed their qualifying run by beating Alpha Secondary, Burnaby’s top-ranked AA team, 4-1 to book a spot in provincials.
The tough tests continued on Day 1 at provincials, as STA took on North Delta to open pool play. The teams tied 1-1, and both sides went on to score comfortable wins against the other two teams in the pool. That left them tied heading into the playoffs, forcing STA and North Delta to meet in a shootout to decide who would go through to the medal round as the pool’s top finisher. Salituro said it was an odd sensation to finish up a game on one field and then immediately head over to a different field for a high-stakes shootout against a different team.
“It’s not like you just finished a game with them and now you’re going to a shootout,” he said. “It’s like, we played them yesterday and now we’re meeting them back at the field for a shootout to go to the semifinals. There’s just so much on the line.”
Needing a win to have any hope of claiming a medal, the Saints again got a huge performance from Boppart. STA’s first two shooters failed to score, but Boppart again made three saves, giving the Saints a chance to regroup and bury their final three shots to take the win.
“Sam’s a huge factor for us,” said Salituro. “He provides that sort of calming factor, that he’s going to come up big, he’s going to steal a couple from them. He gives us a chance to win. There’s never a guarantee in a shootout, it’s a lottery, but I think when you have that in the back of your mind that you have that keeper there who’s always going to steal a couple for you, it just gives you that better chance of being successful. I think it played a huge factor in the Sutherland shootout and it played a big factor in the North Delta shootout.”
Next up was a semifinal showdown against St. Michael’s University School, the defending provincial champs.
“They’re a big, physical team, and we’re not the biggest of teams,” said Salituro. “We knew we were going to have a battle on our hands. We threw everything we had at them and more.”
The teams were tied 0-0 after regulation time, but SMUS bounced one in during the overtime period and hung on for a 1-0 win.
“It was an unlucky deflection, but it was a good victory on their part,” said Salituro. “They played us hard. … That was probably our best effort of the season. We wanted it bad. We wanted to be in that championship game on Wednesday, and we fell just short.”
The STA players were “gutted” after the loss, said Salituro, but they came back the next morning ready to fight for bronze. The consolation final, however, didn’t start out well for STA and they found themselves down 1-0 at halftime. That’s when Grossling gave a fiery pep talk to the boys.
“Fernando gave the guys a ‘gentle’ reminder that that level of competitiveness that they were playing with in the first half was not acceptable, and we were not going to do this to our seniors,” said Salituro, who usually serves as the calming voice to balance out Grossling’s fire. “We call ourselves yin and yang.”
The talk worked, as STA pulled level at 1-1 less than 10 minutes into the second half and then took the lead when midfielder Gerardo Villavicencio knocked home a penalty shot following a hand ball in the box. Villavicencio has been a team leader all season, said Salituro.
“He’s kind of the engine of our team in the midfield. He’s not necessarily our top goal scorer, although he has cracked a few beautiful goals this year, but he has been instrumental in the lead-up or the setup of a lot of key goals.”
Once they took the lead the Saints never looked back, holding on for a 2-1 win. With that, the disappointment of their tough loss one day earlier evaporated.
“They were absolutely ecstatic,” said Salituro. “We couldn’t have asked for a better ending.”
The coaches credited the Grade 12 leadership of players like Boppart, Villavicencio, and central defender Andres Marcano with guiding the team along their tough road to the podium.
“We weren’t one of the favourites to be in the mix,” he said. “When you put it all in perspective at the end of the day, to finish the tournament, finish the season, finish some players’ high school careers on a winning note and to pick up some hardware along the way, it just makes it all worth it. The boys were super pumped. … We were super happy with bronze and super proud of our boys.”
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Boppart earned the tournament’s Top Goalie award and was named as STA’s representative on the Commissioners 11 tournament all-star team.
The Windsor Dukes finished the tournament in 13th place, winning their two playoff games after dropping all three of the games in the opening round. Goalie Breyden Symons was Windsor’s pick for the Commissioners 11.
The Dukes won the North Shore AA league with a 6-1 record, advancing to provincials with a 2-1 shootout win over Alpha in the playoffs. Windsor also had a shootout hero in backup goalie Zach Duggan, who saved three of the six shots he faced after replacing Symons, who was injured near the end of the game.