ABBOTSFORD — Andrew Kraft could appreciate the surreal nature of the moment.
Two years ago, if you had dared breath aloud the fact that the South Delta Sun Devils could win a B.C. boys high school rugby championship at the second-highest tier of provincial competition, the response would have been a lot louder than mere snickers.
Yet as you watched it all unfold Saturday at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium, as Tsawwassen’s finest kept the hometown Robert Bateman Timberwolves at arm’s length for the entire B.C. Triple A Tier 1 title match, you realized just how quickly great coaching and the right collection of physically-gifted and committed players could precipitate a rise.
And anyway you slice it, this has been an epic rise.
“From the start of the year, we wanted to do something our school had never done before,” Kraft, the Grade 11 forward with the South Delta Sun Devils senior boys rugby team explained after his team had toppled the Timberwolves 35-22.
“We had so many people tell us ‘You won’t be able to do it,’” continued Kraft, who, like so many of his teammates, also stars on the school’s provincial powerhouse football team. “So the boys just got together and said ‘You know what? We are going to do something that no one thinks we can do.’ Today showed what happens when you set a goal and you work for it.”
B.C.’s Triple A Tier 1 title is one step smaller than the top-flight Quad-A division dominated by the likes of Oak Bay, Shawnigan Lake and St. George’s, where rugby is king, and has been so for generations.
Triple A Tier 1, however, is also populated with generational rugby schools like Earl Marriott and Yale.
South Delta showed last season that it was ready to take a step up in the pecking order.
Yet heading into this season, it’s biggest moment was nonetheless a loss, one it suffered in promising fashion in the opening round of last season’s provincials to the Yale Lions.
Yet while their ascent has been rapid, adversity still reared itself in a most cruel way this season.
So despite the fact that a championship had just been won, Kraft for one, was managing to keep it all in very impressive perspective.
IN CELEBRATION, REMEMBERING WHAT MATTERS MOST
We have often referenced South Delta’s 22-7 win over Robert Bateman back on April 10th in Tsawwassen as a turning point in the team’s season.
It’s the game that convinced the school’s star quarterback Michael Calvert that he needed to stop being a spectator and re-join the program as its outside centre.
It’s also the game which the program’s young architect-in-residence, head coach Spencer Baines, points to in the team’s evolution from talented athletic individuals to a true team.
Yet the one aspect of the game that doesn’t get mentioned is the horrific leg injury suffered in the early going by the team’s well-loved Grade 11 Niall Cummins.
Play stopped for close to an hour that day as emergency vehicles including a fire engine and later an ambulance arrived on the playing field itself to very carefully transport the injured player to the hospital.
A broken leg and a torn ACL ended his season that day, and if you ask guys like Kraft about their friend, whom he says loves the game more than anyone else on the team, you know you are beginning to tread on some pretty emotional ground.
Yet on Saturday, in the heat of the team’s single greatest moment, Kraft, a Class of 2019 grad, couldn’t help but reference his fallen teammate.
“Niall is one of our best players, and ever since he broke his leg at that game, we’ve just said that we can’t lose this thing,” said Kraft.
“Before this game, we said that we’re playing for each other,” he continued, “but we said that we’re especially playing for Niall because he can’t be here, and it’s his sport.”
IN THE END, IT’S WHY WE CARE
A couple of weeks ago, the Sun Devils found reason to come to Abbotsford and play on the natural grass pitch at Rotary Stadium.
Yet while the team’s 30-25 loss to Earl Marriott in the Fraser Valley title game certainly showed the progress they had made, their 0-for-5 performance kicking converts left a lot of questions unanswered about their ability to go forth and win the big prize.
On Saturday, however, after Evan Paterson scored the game’s first points via the try, then successfully kicked the convert form a very tough angle, it was apparent that this team had spent some productive time in the workshop.
“Evan was unbelievable today,” said Baines. “The first kick he made was from the sideline so you knew it was going to be a good day for him.”
Paterson, a 10th grader, made a long run not too soon after to score his second try, and once again the convert was good.
Suddenly, in the biggest game in the entire history of the program, the Sun Devils were leaving nothing on the field.
While Bateman got a pair of tries from standout No. 8 Brock McCartney, as well as a try, a penalty and two converts from Sam Davenport, South Delta was leaving nothing to chance.
Calvert’s try made it 19-3 with just over five minutes left in the first half.
McCartney, also a football standout, leveled a South Delta player on his way to scoring his first try, pulling Bateman to within 21-10 early in the second half.
And even though Dylan Roach was able to answer a try by South Delta’s Caleb van Til with one of his own to make it 28-17, South Delta’s responses all came with successful converts, two by Paterson and three by Colton McDougall.
Kraft’s try with three minutes remaining made it 35-17 before McCartney added his second for Bateman with just seconds remaining.
After going 0-for-5 from the tee following tries in the Fraser Valley title game and losing by five points, the Sun Devils went a perfect 5-for-5 Saturday and won the big one by 13.
“We didn’t have enough possession,” said Bateman’s veteran head coach Stephen Rowell whose distinguished career includes over 20 years as a teacher and coach, in addition to a quarter-century as either the president or commissioner of the B.C. Secondary Schools Rugby Union.
“The way they were stealing the ball on the ground was outstanding,” continued the ever-classy Rowell. “They were full value for their victory. They didn’t let us in the game. We missed some early points that might have helped generate more energy but it’s to their credit that we just couldn’t get into the game.”
And thus a so-called new kid on the block claimed an incredibly tough-to-claim stake in the ultra-competitive upper reaches of a high school sport with a deserved dues-paying reputation.
Follow the stories behind the stories throughout the course of each high school sports season, then look for trends over the decades and it’s clear this one is special.
It’s one of those out-of-the-blue stories that grip hard on the heart.
If you watch and you root and you care from the perspective of what our high school teams are supposed to mean in the grand scheme of things, of getting to that place where striving for excellence is balanced by compassion, then this one reaffirmed why we need to care so much.
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