There were more than a few surprised onlookers when the very young Argyle Pipers senior boys soccer team made it all the way to the provincial AAA championship final last weekend in Burnaby.
The team fielded a starting roster that included four Grade 10s and one Grade 9, leading to some disbelief when the youngsters won their pool with ease before knocking off Tamanawis in the semifinals to book a trip to the finals against the top-ranked Blue Devils from Coquitlam's Dr. Charles Best secondary. You can't include the Pipers themselves, however, in the group that was surprised by their performance.
"Lots of people keep coming and saying (how surprised they were), but I believed that we were capable the entire time and I think our boys believed. We're a good team," said head coach Darren Rath. "I'm not going to take away any credit from what our boys did. ... They proved to everybody that they deserved to be there."
The Pipers continued to wow the crowd early in the final, scoring first against a Blue Devils squad that had breezed through the tournament, scoring 16 goals while allowing just two prior to the final. Charles Best boasted a starting lineup made up almost exclusively of players from the Coquitlam Metro-Ford team in B.C. Soccer's High Performance League, a squad that has racked up two national club championships in recent years.
"When we came out and were very competitive and then we took the lead, I think that surprised a lot of people and it gave our boys a lot of confidence," said Rath.
The surprises, however, were over before halftime as the Blue Devils scored two goals late in the first half to head to the break with a 2-1 lead. The Pipers threw everything they had at the Blue Devils in the second half but that left them vulnerable at the back and Charles Best took advantage, potting three more for a 5-1 win.
"They're a very good team. They're stacked," said Rath. "I asked the boys if we wanted to play one way or if we wanted to just open up and get that goal back and go for it. The boys wanted to go for it, so we went for it and gave it our best shot."
The Pipers were led throughout provincials by Grade 12 co-captain Troy Townsend, who was named to the Commissioner's 16 tournament all-star team. Townsend finished the season with 17 goals and 11 assists. Grade 12 defender and co-captain Sina Seyed-Ali and goalie Andre Balzer helped solidify a strong Pipers defence made up of many players who were playing out of position, said Rath.
The Grade 12 core was bolstered by the talented and hungry group of young starters on the team, including Grade 9 midfielder Miles Gailiunas and Grade 10s Alex Wallace, Jake Ruby, Thorben Stock and Declan Confortin. Grade 9 Owen McBride and Grade 10 Graham Dumars were also expected to play significant roles but missed the tournament due to injury.
"It's very rare to have a Grade 9 player make the team," said Rath. "It's very rare for us to have this many grade 10s be able to make the team. In boys soccer one year makes a difference. But the players that are in Grade 9 and 10 on this year's team are exceptional players." Add in Grade 11 star Matthew Miki, who has played in the Vancouver Whitecaps youth system, and it looks as if the Pipers won't be surprising anyone if they make any return trips to the provincial final in the next few years.
"The future is very, very bright with the strength and quality of the up-and-coming players," said Rath, adding that the young team should take great pride in what they accomplished this season.
"They're the second best team in the province," he said. "They really came together as a tight-knit group. I don't think any of them had experienced being part of a team that's so tight. That contributes to their success. Every single player had major contributions to the success of the team in their own individual ways."
Their performance this year was helped greatly by the way they all bonded, regardless of age, said Rath. "If you walked into a room, you wouldn't know the differences - there's no segregation," he said. "You'd see a table of four that had a Grade 9, a Grade 10, a Grade 11 and a Grade 12. ... How they accepted each other and worked together on and off the field - that makes special teams. And this was a special team."