VANCOUVER — It’s never easy to change the culture of a sports program over the course of one season, yet you wouldn’t be off base if you said that is precisely what happened with the new B.C. senior boys AAA soccer champions from Vancouver College.
That takes a second just to get used to hearing.
The Fighting Irish and the beautiful game really didn’t have a history until this past weekend.
All of that changed after Vancouver College crashed the party and won B.C.’s highest-tiered boys soccer title with a 2-0 title-clinching win Saturday over Surrey’s Panorama Ridge Thunder at the Burnaby Lake Sports Complex.
“We had a lot of returning players from last year and we had a group that was really hungry,” said Irish head coach Ryan Shams. “We talked about changing the soccer culture at this school and the guys all bought in. We had two 7 a.m. practices a week and no one missed. We had great senior leadership.”
Added Irish co-captain, senior centre back and tournament MVP Kelly O’Brien: “I think the brotherhood our Grade 12’s shared this year was insane. Out back line was unstoppable. We didn’t let anything through.”
They also got the performances earlier in the season which they needed to get past their toughest traditional hurdle: Winning the two-leg home-and-home with rival St. George’s just to advance to the Lower Mainland championships.
This season, the Irish won 2-1 at Saints, then cruised to a 5-1 victory at home.
That momentum carried them through the Mainland tourney, where they defeated Kitsilano on penalty kicks in the title match after losing star striker John Joseph to a second yellow card, and finishing the match with 10 players.
Joseph’s card issues forced him to sit out the Fighting Irish’s first game of the provincial championships, but Vancouver College still managed to win its pool and advance to Friday’s semifinals.
There, it was Joseph who nodded home a 55th-minute free kick by Jonas Zimmerman in a 1-0 win over the Fraser Valley champion Abbotsford Panthers.
Abby’s Jehmrode Kahlon had a pair of glorious late chances to equalize, and the Panthers carried much of the play but could not beat Irish goalie Jasper Leong who was later picked the tourney’s top keeper.
In the final against Panorama Ridge, Joseph scored the winner 10 minutes in, heading home a corner kick. He then iced the game with left-footed strike just outside the 18-yard box with three minutes remaining.
“John is one of the hardest working players I have ever had the pleasure to coach,” said Shams, himself a former receiver on the Irish football team who has modelled his coaching style after his mentor, Fighting Irish football head coach Todd Bernett. “Having John is like having two guys up top, so we can play more in the midfield.”
It was an Irish defence anchored by centre backs O’Brien and Jacob Gravelle that played a huge role in the final. But the Irish payed special attention to the Thunder’s ever-dangerous Jeevan Sidhu, giving David Tang the assignment of man-marking him throughout the match.
“The whole tournament, we just wanted to play our game,” added Shams. “We’re not that big, but we’re fast so there were not a lot of long, deep balls. It was all short passes. We just wanted to dictate the flow of play.”
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