The Alberni Athletics girls team at the BC Provincial Championships in 2018. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

The Alberni Athletics girls team at the BC Provincial Championships in 2018. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

COVID-19 ends Alberni Athletics’ year of provincial promise

Girls’ soccer team was poised for return to Island Cup, B.C. finals when season was cut short

By SHAUN RUST

Special to the News

Right from its beginnings in 2013, the Alberni Athletics girls’ soccer team was unique.

It included players who were two, three and even four years apart from one another. Every other team we opposed had players who all were the same age as our oldest girls (born in 2002). However, that was the only way the small town of Port Alberni could support a rep team.

The league we played in is the Upper Island Soccer League, consisting of teams from Campbell River, Comox, Powell River, Port Alberni, Ladysmith and Nanaimo. To be the Upper Island representative and get to the Island Cup, or the provincials’ qualifying round, our team would have to win the Development Cup (for the Upper Island) by beating those other teams. They would then have to be the Lower Island representative, which is no small task for a team that had a four-year age gap in their starting 11.

There was no guarantee the Athletics would continue to play after that first year, so due to the differences in development and the desire to have the team continue for years to come, management knew they had to start small. At first, the team worked mostly on having fun together, team building, individual skills and defense. Our first game against Nanaimo saw us down 10-0 in the first half and we thought, “Oh no. If this is the calibre of play, we are going to have to step it up a lot if we’re going to be competitive.”

As the year progressed, we slowly improved. In our second year, we played that same Nanaimo team and tied them, and then we knew we were headed in the right direction. Tying that game was like winning the World Cup because the Athletics knew they could be competitive.

It was in their third year (2015 season) that the girls won their first Island Cup by defeating a very good Victoria team to claim the title of best team in their division on the Island.

Each year, we lost a player or two and thought it would devastate the team chemistry, only to gain another one or two that gave it right back. It was remarkable how resilient this group of girls really was.

Year 4 brought in a couple of new players, along with the ones returning from the previous years. The difficulty was fitting the new girls onto a team that was starting to discover their style of play, which was great defense with outstanding goaltending and a new, counter-attacking offense. Our previous offense had consisted of kicking the ball to our forwards and hoping they could beat a defender, but as teams became familiar with us those chances became scarce.

As Year 4 progressed, the coaching staff could see the girls slowly grasping the idea of attacking as well as defending. After a disappointing loss in the provincial qualifying game against Nanaimo, we regrouped and fought our way back into the final of the Island Cup, where our defence and our new offence propelled us to win our second Island Championship.

Year 5 (2017 season) saw another couple of players leave and another couple of players join. Again, we thought we might have lost some key components, but the growth continued as the team found a renewed level of competitive spirit and team chemistry. The team advanced to both the Island Cup final and the provincial qualifying final. The team eventually lost to a very tough Victoria team in the Island Cup, only to turn around and beat that same team to head to the provincial championship in Kamloops (July, 2018).

At the provincials, the girls learned valuable lessons about stamina, perseverance, fitness and team play. The girls placed fifth in the Province and came away from the experience with a new found love of the sport and a thirst to do it again.

Unfortunately, in the two years that followed, the Athletics did not return to the provincials, as they lost both times to a very impressive Victoria team who seemed to get better and better each year, and who in our sixth year won the provincial title. There was some solace in knowing that we were beat out (barely) by the eventual BC Champs.

However, that same season (2019) the girls did win one more Island Cup against that same Victoria team in a shootout for the ages. The game was tied after regulation and extra time, and even after the first five, then sixth, seventh and eighth shooters. Finally, our ninth shooter scored to crown us Island champions one more time.

2020 saw our season cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but not before the girls qualified for the provincial cup and the Island Cup final again. After losing to Victoria in the provincial qualifier, the girls played one more league game in Powell River before the season was cancelled.

This, of course, was not the way the girls wanted our team to end, but what a fantastic journey it was. The whole experience, from 2013 to 2020, was very impressive for a group of girls who—on paper—had no business competing against the other teams that had all the same-aged players, from a town that consisted of fewer female soccer players than any other club they competed against.

As Coach Doug Chase often said, “That’s why the game isn’t played on paper.”

Overall, at the end of their run, during the last two years especially, the Athletics played fantastic soccer with all of the elements and nuances of the game . After the fifth year, and into the sixth, the Athletics really figured it out and from then on they played magically. There grew to be a phenomenal combination of interchangeable players and confident passing. It truly became the beautiful game, in so many ways.

It took dedicated and skilled coaches to make all of this happen. Coach Chase led the charge, but was greatly assisted by Frank Hoekstra, who did not even have a daughter on the team. Chase is no-nonsense, while Coach Hoekstra is humourous and calm, as well as very knowledgeable. Kerry Noble also helped coach in the first few seasons, and she was instrumental in getting the team launched initially. Penny Matthews was another key part of the team, as the manager who performed many logistical and organizational tasks. Finally, the team would like to thank Tanya Rust for taking literally thousands of photos over the years, and then compiling them into wonderful albums for everyone’s enjoyment.

Coach Chase would also like to recognize the players through the years and thank them for their contributions to this great Alberni Athletics team. This list starts with the ones who played for the full seven years, winning five Development Cups (Upper Island), three Island Championships and one provincial qualifier, and then proceeds by years of service from there:

7 -year vets:

Kamryn McKean, Kiarra Gilks, Sydney Chase, Sarah Mathews, Sarah Rust and Acacia Thompson

6-year players:

Paige Maher, Hannah Rust, Ashlee Dorn, Bella Hall and Jamie Langlois

5-year player:

Anneke Korver

4-year players:

Lauren Spencer-Smith and Ryley Gingras

3-year players:

Jennika Mercer, Kayla Rentz, Hanna Ross

1- and 2-year players:

Lindsey Frank, Mackenzie Loyer, Sysha Blackstone, Olivia Warman, Nyla Haider, Raquel Thompson, Haley McArthur, Jordan McDonald and Mikayla Attfield.

Finally, the team would like to thank the Alberni Valley Youth Soccer Association for all of their support over the years. The team (coaches, players, and manager) would like to thank the parents for all of their time and commitment to get the team to practices and games all over the island, and other places, in all kinds of weather. A thank you to our various sponsors, including Mountain View Bakery that was with us the longest. Thanks to the Alberni Valley News for printing articles about our progress through the years. It’s been an amazing ride!

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