The U21 Mid-Isle Highlanders hoisted the George Smith Cup after winning the Island championship in exciting fashion — a 3-2 final over Victoria’s Westcastle FC that took double overtime to decide — and the team’s Oceanside connection certainly helped the cause.
The Ladysmith-based squad, comprised of players from Duncan to Qualicum Beach, was led by longtime local soccer coach and BSS teacher Larry Stefanek and peniclled in three local players — midfielder/forward Darien Atkinson, middy Cole Senchar (the youngest player on the team at 15) and defender Evan Stefanek.
According to Stefanek, the U21 Highlanders were created in part to give first-year Vancouver Island University recruits a place to play.
“That was one of the reasons,” said Stefanek. “The other is it’s hopefully going to become the team to play for — the prominent program for the top young players in our region to play on in the winter.”
It is also a feeder program for the Mid-Isle Highlanders spring/summer U21 Highlanders who play in the Pacific Coast Soccer League (also coached by Stefanek and managed by VIU Mens head coach Bill Merriman from Cedar) .
The Island final, played out Sunday, March 24 in Victoria at Royal Athletic Park. The weather was good, but the field said Stefanek, “was really bumpy,” and “was a shootout in the first half — four goals in the first half hour,” Stefanek said of the match, which was tied 2-2 at the half which is how it remained for the next 90 minutes until Connor Williams from Cowichan scored the winner off a free kick.
“Great feeling — the boys were excited,” confirmed Stefanek.
This was the U21 Highlanders inaugural season in the VISL and the team, said their coach, “had a phenomenal season. They worked hard they love to play the game they have a passion for the game which is a huge thing. Great group of kids.”
Mid-Isle won the eight-team VISLU21 league’s regular season with a record of 12-2 then rolled through the George Smith Cup playoffs, beating Bays United 3-1 in the quarterfinals and the Saanich Fusion 2-1 in overtime in the semis.
GAME ON: The Highlanders and four other Island teams now advance to Provincial Cup play — a 16-team single knockout format played out over the next five weeks at different locations.
As Island champs, the Highlanders host their opening round match April 13 or 14 against an opponent to be named this week, most likely at the Ladysmith turf fields.