The Cowichan 49ers celebrate their Tony Grover Cup win at Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park on Sunday afternoon. (Vancouver Island Soccer League photo)

The Cowichan 49ers celebrate their Tony Grover Cup win at Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park on Sunday afternoon. (Vancouver Island Soccer League photo)

Tony Grover Cup three-peat for Cowichan 49ers

Cowichan has won Island title in all three years of existence

Since the Cowichan 49ers joined the Vancouver Island Soccer League’s masters A division, they’ve been the dominant force in the league.

In just three seasons, the 49ers have won the league title twice, missing it in their first year by the smallest of margins. On Sunday, the team won its third straight Tony Grover Cup as Island masters champions, beating Gorge FC 2-1 at Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park.

Kevin James has been at the helm for all three cup wins, but said it’s hard to compare them to each other.

“Regardless of if it’s your first or second or third, championships are all special,” the coach said. “They’re all special for different reasons: what you’ve dealt with, what kind of season you’ve had with injuries and the other kinds of things that come along through life.

“A lot of good players retire and don’t get the opportunity to win a championship. If you can get three or more, or even one, that’s special.”

Neall (Rocket) Rowlings opened the scoring with a breakaway goal in the 13th minute, displaying his speed, which is frequently a challenge for other over-35 teams to match. Gorge got back in the game six minutes later when the 49ers scored an own goal.

“That deflated us a little bit and gave them a bit of a boost,” James admitted. “It changes the whole mindset of the game.”

Five minutes into the second half, Stu Barker took a feed from Tyler Hughes and buried the ball to put Cowichan ahead, and the 49ers held on from there. Gorge worked hard to score the equalizer, but appeared to run out of gas.

“They were forced to open up to play for the tie, and that allowed us to keep possession,” James said.

He was pleased to get out of the close call.

“Two-to-one is not a good scoreline,” the coach said. “One bad bounce and it can be 2-2. To be able to play like we did the last 18 minutes, I was very happy.”

Sunday’s game was a rematch of the 2018 Tony Grover Cup final, the result of which was appealed by Gorge, who ended up declining the opportunity to replay the last seven minutes of the match. The 2019 final is unlikely to cause a similar dispute.

“We were hoping there wouldn’t be any controversies, and there weren’t,” James said. “The officiating crew did a good job.”

Gorge had to replace some players who moved on after the 2017-18 season, and James was impressed with their ability to recover and return to the cup final.

“It’s a testament to their leadership that they were able to get back to the final.”

Cowichan had nothing but respect for Gorge on Sunday.

“There were two good teams out there, but I think we carried more of the play,” James said. “They’re a good team. They had some chances. They just weren’t able to capitalize on any of them.”

Most of the Cowichan roster has been intact for all three championships, although Dave Tuckey plans to retire after this season. Keeping the team together has been a big part of the 49ers’ success.

“Chemistry is big, and we have that,” James said.

Next up for the 49ers is the provincial championship tournament, where they will have home advantage all the way to the final. With a bye to the quarter-finals, Cowichan will play their first game on April 28 against the winner of UVic Alumni and Columbus FC, the second seed from the Vancouver Metro Soccer League. There’s never an easy game in provincials, James cautioned.

“You can’t think you’re going to play a weak team,” he said. “All the teams in provincials are top teams.”

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