SURREY — Dean Fetterly wasn’t expecting to have to reconfigure his team’s entire schematic just 20 minutes into his team’s biggest game of the season.
Yet just to prove that championship titles are not made-to-order propositions, the No. 3-ranked Abbotsford Panthers showed they can batten down the hatches as well as they can score goals, beating Surrey’s energetic, No. 2-ranked L.A. Matheson Mustangs 2-0 in an intensely-physical clash for the Fraser Valley Triple-A senior boys soccer title Thursday at South Surrey Athletic Park.
A red card in that fateful 20th minute may have forced the Panthers to play down a man for the remaining 60 minutes, yet for a team which had toiled together for four seasons in search of just this moment, they were as passionate defending as they were clinical in their opening attack.
Striker Marley Edwards’ expertly-placed, sinking free kick in the 13th minutes gave the Panthers a 1-0 lead, then just five minutes after the red card, Harjen Sidhu was able to nod home a cross near the Mustangs’ goal line for a 2-0 gap.
From that point forward, the Panthers’, behind the clutch goalkeeping of Travis Inkster, shut the door.
Abby last won the Fraser Valley title 16 years ago, back in 2002, and the greying Fetterly is reminded just how long it’s been since he coached that team on his rounds about town.
“That was a great team,” Fetterley recalled in the post-match aftermath. “I still seem a lot of the guys around Abbotsford and they are all like, 33-, 34-years-old now. It’s even been a pretty long spell since we’ve been to the B.C. tournament.”
The Panthers have not been to the Big Dance since 2005, but they should get one of the better draws to the 16-team event based on their Valley No. 1 status when the B.C. tournament begins its three-day run Nov. 22 at Burnaby Lake West.
Fetterly was most happy that the commitment his players have shown to their high school program over an extended period yielded a desired result Wednesday.
“This group has been playing together since Grade 9, and the last couple of years we’ve had five, and then two seniors on this team,” he said. “They started out really young and they’d always had a goal to do this.”
Of course against a seasoned, yet still-rising program like L.A. Matheson, that wasn’t going to be easy.
The Mustangs, Final Four participants at the B.C. tourney a season ago, arrived with a large cheering section and proceeded to send a barrage of shots towards Inkster in the Panthers’ goal.
Yet a veteran Abby team adopted new roles after going down a man, and executed with aplomb.
“Marley Edwards is a great striker with great speed, but he also did a very good job of staying with their defenders and not giving them easy runs coming out of the back line,” said Fetterly.
“And in the second half, I thought he did a really good job of sitting back (in midfield) and moving in and out with Ajai (Bopari) and Jehmrode (Kahlon),” added Fetterly, who asked his attackers to focus on defence through the midfield. “The three of them were working very well in pushing through.”
For Mustangs’ head coach Manmeet Sahota, the second-place finish was disappointing, but also reflected the rising nature of the school’s soccer program.
“We finished third (2016) and fifth (2017) at the Fraser Valleys,” said Sahota. “Today we finished second, and that is the highest that any team (in any sport) has finished at a Fraser Valley Triple A championship in our school history.”
Although they were unable to find the back of the net, Mustangs’ forwards Jeevan Sandhu and Jasdeep Gill, as well as defender Aman Sidhu were standouts Wednesday.
“This was a tough one,” admitted Sahota, whose team is nonetheless headed towards its third straight B.C. tournament. “Through the season, the boys have played so well, and we haven’t been behind much. Then they got down 2-0 and it was hard to come back from that. I told the boys that sure, you always want to win any championship game you’re in, but that ultimately we’ve got another one in two weeks. I told them to use today as their motivation.”
Added Abby’s Fetterly: “Everybody at the B.C.’s is good and to get there, you have to be a good team. We will enjoy this but it’s back to training. We have two weeks from today to be ready.”
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