ABBOTSFORD — They may not be the strongest and they’re certainly not the biggest side in the decorated history of Earl Marriott senior boys rugby.
Yet if tenacity is setting the bar for the Surrey-based program,, then the 2018 Mariners don’t have any trouble holding their own as one of the grittiest editions in school history.
“This has not been a traditionally strong year for Earl Marriott rugby but there is a resiliency here,” admitted Mariners’ head coach Adam Roberts after his charges closed out the Fraser Valley AAA Tier 1 title match Wednesday by scoring its final two tries unanswered to rally for a 29-25 win over Tsawwassen’s upstart and equally gritty South Delta Sun Devils.
“This team has come a long ways just to get to this point,” said Roberts, whose team opened the season at Quad A and recently dropped back to Triple A where it will begin its provincial championship run next week as Tier 1’s top seeds. “We put them under extreme pressure all year, playing what I feel was the toughest schedule in the province. And they answered that by rising to the occasion, to getting better and better. Today, we just found a way to win.”
They had to, because in a game overflowing from start to finish with pace and tempo, the outcome seemed destined to belong to the team with last touch.
In fact if any match at the provincial tournament lives up to the Fraser Valley final, it will become an instant classic.
Consider that after the Sun Devils opened early with a 5-0 lead on a try by Ethan Troniak, that the score changed hands on six straight occasions before South Delta took a 20-17 lead on a Jesse Conroy try with 20 minutes remaining.
Three minutes later, a strategic kick down field by UBC-bound quarterback Michael Calvert was quickly turned into a game-changing score at the try-line by his football teammate, star Grade 11 running back Andrew Kraft.
That score had the Sun Devils ahead by eight points at 25-17 with 17 minutes remaining.
It was, however, Earl Marriott’s response to the game’s only two-score deficit which defined the match, one which was played under sweltering and humid 30-degree conditions.
First, Ryan Renkers with a try that cut it to 25-22 with nine minutes remaining, then Izzak Kelly with just 1:18 remaining, with the winning score.
Brady Smith added the convert on the final try to make the 29-25 score final, yet South Delta still took the ball to the shadow of the try line and threatened to score the winning points as the clock expired. On the game, South Delta was 0-for-5 on converts and Earl Marriott 2-for-5.
“I think we’re going to keep working on our fitness,” explained South Delta head coach Spencer Baines, whose upstart Sun Devils now prep for the provincials having easily made one of the biggest forward leaps in any B.C. high school sport this season. “We have to be able to carry this through 60 minutes. I know these are shorter games, but we slowed down at the end.”
They also played with as thin a bench as they have all campaign, and losing Calvert to cramps in the hot weather over the latter stages did not help the cause.
Kelly, the Canadian Under-18 select, answered South Delta’s game-opening score, and Smith’s convert made it 7-5 Mariners.
From there, the score kept changing hands, seemingly with every possession.
Kraft’s first try on a power run put the Sun Devils ahead 10-7. Devon Stroud came back to make 12-10 Marriott, before Calvert made a brilliant run to the goal-line and found temamate Keldon Olmstead for a try and a 15-12 lead.
Keenan Vermette scored a try to make it 17-15 Marriott in the second half before the Sun Devils rallied to build their eight-point led, setting the stage for the Mariners’ dramatic comeback.
Afterwards, Roberts gushed a little in tipping his hat to the effort of South Delta, a program enjoying the greatest prominence it has ever experienced on the rugby field since opening 45 years ago in 1973.
“Their feet are pumping, they are breaking tackles,” said Roberts. “They are tremendous athletes, and one-on-one it’s hard to stop that. They have so many runners on that team that can have a go.”
The Sun Devils’ program is on the rise one season after they served notice of their rise right here at Rotary Stadium during the 2017 provincials.
Yet for Baines and Co., there is the realization that their opportunity to win a B.C. title is now.
“It’s cool to be turning some heads, I guess,” said Baines. “Adam does such an amazing job with Earl Marriott and you see it in the way they play.
“It’s nice to be in the discussion with EMS and Yale, who have been at it for some time,” he continued. “We’re getting there. I think (last season) we kind of felt like we were still not in the mix for winning it. Now, these guys have seen what we have to do and we know we can make it to the finals. It sucks to lose, but the big one is next week.”
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