When the Cowichan Valley Thunder won the junior B Tier 2 box lacrosse provincial championship at Colwood’s Q Centre on Sunday afternoon, they did it in the most dramatic fashion possible.
This team couldn’t have done it any other way.
Facing a Port Moody Thunder team that handed them a humiliating defeat a day earlier, Cowichan found themselves trailing by a goal with 35 seconds left in regulation time. Head coach Lorne Winship had an ace up his sleeve, however, just for a moment like that: the Cowichan coaches were convinced that the Port Moody goalie’s jersey, which hung almost to his knees, was illegal. Cowichan called a timeout and had the jersey examined. Had it been deemed illegal, Port Moody would have been penalized, but when the referee decided the sweater was acceptable, Cowichan ended up shorthanded.
Now holding the man advantage, Port Moody called a timeout with 30 seconds left. Winship wasn’t done gambling, however, and pulled his own goalie, Pollo Claxton, so he could put his five fastest runners on the floor. All the Port Moody players needed to do at that point was hold onto the ball to kill the clock, and the game would be over. The empty net was too much temptation for them, and they ran down the floor, expecting an easy goal.
Brayden Zunti stripped the ball from a Port Moody player with 23 seconds left, and the Cowichan players bolted down the floor. They managed to get a quality shot, but missed. Colin Winship scooped up the loose ball in front of the net and darted back in front. His teammates set a couple of good picks, and Winship ripped a sub shot past the Port Moody goalie, tying the game at 9-9 with just 3.1 seconds left to play.
That sent the game to 10 minutes of overtime, with no sudden death. Cowichan killed the remaining 85 seconds of their penalty, getting a shorthanded goal from Taylor Martin to take the lead. Then, with seven minutes left in the extra period, one of Port Moody’s best players took a five-minute match penalty. Powerplay goals by Martin and Zunti put Cowichan up 12-9, securing the win, and the gold medal, for the Island champs.
“Most exciting game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Winship, who has coached lacrosse for 18 years.
Cowichan had lost 19-9 to the same Port Moody team on Saturday morning, and were motivated by more than just the prospect of winning gold.
“The boys really responded,” Winship said. “Obviously, we were somewhat embarrassed by Port Moody the day before. We knew we were a lot better than what we showed that day.”
Colin Winship and game MVP Mat Jung both finished the game with three goals and four assists. Brayden Zunti had two goals and one assist, Martin scored twice, and Cowichan captain Tyson Black had a goal and three helpers. Jacob Taylor also had one goal, Olin Webb had two assists, and Kyle Page and Devyn Zunti each had one assist.
Hoping to inspire his teammates, one of the Cowichan players brought his collection of previous provincial medals to Sunday’s final and hung them in the dressing room, saying, “Let’s get another.”
The core of the group that won on Monday has had tremendous success at the provincial level winning gold at peewee A in 2009, gold at midget A2 in 2012, bronze at midget A1 in 2013, silver in intermediate B in 2014, and gold in intermediate B in 2015.
That kind of experience is rare in any sport, and helped Cowichan rally on Sunday.
“It’s so interesting, being involved in other sports, when you ask in the dressing room who has been in a championship or a provincial final before, no hands go up,” Winship said. “With this group, it was three quarters of the kids.”
Over the years, the players have found a lot of ways to win, especially when it counts the most.
“This group has an uncanny ability to win big games,” Winship commented.
The Thunder started the provincial tournament by scraping past the host Westshore Bears 6-5 on Friday afternoon, backstopped by game MVP Claxton. That was followed on Saturday morning by the devastating loss to Port Moody, in which Black was named Cowichan’s MVP. They locked up a spot in the gold-medal game by beating the Coquitlam Adanacs 12-6 on Saturday evening, led by game MVP Jung.
Jung and Claxton were named first-team tournament all-stars, and Black and Colin Winship were picked for the second team.
A total of 11 Cowichan players wrapped up their junior eligibility with the provincial championship: Martin, Black, Claxton, Colin Winship, Mitch Page, Brandon Corby, Liam Clinging, Sean O’Neill, Tyler Weidenfeld, Steve Robertson, and Kain Stewart. With his youngest son aging out, this appears to be Lorne Winship’s last go-around as a head coach, at least for a while.
He will always carry a memory of this season with him, however. Earlier this season, Winship promised his players that if they won the provincial title, he would get a Cowichan lacrosse tattoo — and some of the players have suggested they will join him.
“After 18 years,” the coach said, “it’s in your blood the rest of your life.”