SURREY — Twelve days ago, to the casual fan of B.C. girls high school soccer, the Fleetwood Park Dragons were a complete non-entity.
Nowhere to be found in the B.C. Top 10 AAA rankings just over a month before the start of the provincial championship tournament?
“I told the players not to pay any attention to that kind of stuff,” Dragons veteran head coach Sunny Uppal said Saturday. “But I won’t lie. I had a lot of the parents asking me what was going on.”
For clarity’s sake, it’s important to note the jovial tone in the coach’s voice, and it’s understandable.
And that’s because there might not be another team, boys or girls, in the entire canon of B.C. high school sports, which seems to play better when the pressure is on.
Last season, the Dragons looked to have left things a little too late when they emerged from the Fraser Valley championships carrying the zone’s seventh-and-final berth to provincials.
Once, there, of course, they found he proverbial phone booth and re-emerged as the Fleetwood Park team which, over the past decade, has had no rivals in terms of finishes.
The Dragons took crosstown rival Fleetwood Park to penalty kicks in last June’s provincial final before settling for runner-up status.
It, was, however, the program’s fourth straight trip to the B.C. championship game, a span in which it has taken turns forging gold (2014, 2016) and silver (2015, 2017).
It’s why you tend to believe Uppal when he says he pays no attention to rankings.
On Monday, a program which seemed stalled in the early going after a poor finish at the UBC Invitational, and later a 1-1 draw in league play with Enver Creek, opens play at the Fraser Valley championships as the 16-team tourney’s No. 3 seed with a 3 p.m. start at home to PoCo’s No. 14-seeded Terry Fox Ravens. (full Fraser Valley AAA tourney draw here).
And if last season’s team used it’s Fraser Valley No. 7 finish as motivation to get to the B.C.final, this season’s edition is clearly playing off the fact that it is peaking at the right time despite a single Grade 12 player in its lineup.
“We’re definitely in tough without any seniors,” said Uppal, whose 2017 team graduated current Rice University freshman midfielder Ashley Burgess. “But our 11s have come a long way from the UBC tournament to now. They are really passing things down to the younger players, and in our last game, at one point we had five Grade 8s on the field.”
This season, the numbers as they pertain to the five-year high school window, are not balanced the way they normally are.
“We run this team like a program, and that is very different than a club,” Uppal explains of community teams which adhere to much smaller age-group windows. “With that said there will always be off years. Like this season, we have no senior and just a few Grade 9s.”
Yet thankfully, Fleetwood Park’s annual habit of extended post-season runs has brought a maturity to the team’s Grade 11 group which allows it to function very much like a group of seniors.
Jenieva Musico, Simran Billen and Niki Virk, a trio of 11s, have been the core anchor of the club, and what’s most encouraging from their perspective is that they and the rest of the team will return in tact next season.
“They only know what it take to make a provincial final,” Uppal explains of the fact that when the current season began in March, every returning player has finished every one of her previous seasons at Fleetwood Park by playing in the provincial championship gold medal game. “That’s why they took the UBC tournament to heart. They are very emotional about it.”
A 3-0 win over South Delta in the title game back in 2014 started it all off.
In 2015, the Dragons fell 2-1 to Coquitlam’s Dr. Charles Best in the battle for gold.
In 2016, it was back on top, this time beating Handsworth 1-0 in the title tilt.
And then last season, in a match that had the stands at the Burnaby Lake Sports Complex jammed to the hilt, they lost on penalty kicks to crosstown rival Panorama Ridge.
“I can remember telling the girls a few years ago how very rare it is to get to the final two years in a row,” said Uppal. “So I told them to just play and not even think about it. But then it happened. And then it happened again, and again. It’s rare and we know it. But it’s a great experience for us, so we’ll just keep going and take it as it comes.”
The Fraser Valley AAA championships run May 7-17 with the final being staged at Cloverdale Athletic Park. The B.C. AAA championships run May 30-June 1 at UBC.
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