SURREY — Sunny Uppal wasn’t sure where it rated in the overall history of his team’s greatest escapes from the jaw of defeat.
“But it’s one of the best, it’s right up there,” the head coach of Surrey’s Fleetwood Park Dragons said after his team not only defied huge odds to advance from pool play into the semifinals, but then also punch its ticket to Friday’s championship final here at the B.C. senior girls AAA soccer tournament for a record-setting sixth straight year.
Simran Billen scored what proved to be the winner in the 25th minute at Cloverdale Athletic Park, slotting home a shot from just outside the 18-yard box as the Dragons edged its longtime city rivals, the Panorama Ridge Thunder by a 1-0 count.
“Sunny is an incredible coach and we knew if we got down then they would get everyone back behind the ball,” said Thunder co-coach Derek Duke, “and they had a great team effort to take care of that. It was another great Surrey battle.”
With just over five minutes remaining, the Thunder pair of Jaspreet Deol and Liya Jackason had glorious back-to-back opportunities in close, right in front of keeper Soninka Nandha, but were unable to equalize.
The Dragons greeted Thursday morning knowing that they needed some help just to win their group and reach the semifinals.
Not only did they need to beat North Vancouver’s Argyle Pipers to close out pool play, which they did by a 2-1 score, but they also needed Fraser Valley rival Riverside of PoCo to tie with Kelowna.
The soccer gods seemed willing to cooperate as that match between the Rapids and the Okanagan’s Owls ended in a 2-2 draw.
That then set up a penalty kicks shoot-out against Riverside to break the group stage tie.
Fleetwood Park wound up winning as Dandha took to the Dragons’ goal and was stunning in making saves on all four Riverside shots.
“I asked one of my captains, Jenieva (Musico), to go have a word with our keepers and ask them which one wanted to play (in the penalty kicks session) and (Nandha) said she was ready. When I looked at her face, I knew she was.”
Uppal added that the energy transfer from the shoot-out win to the Panorama Ridge game was tangible, a complete contrast to the way his team was stymied in a pair of draws in their first two group stage matches.
“It was just a different mentality from yesterday with energy and momentum, and when you get that from game to game, it’s huge,” said Uppal.
“After those two ties, we were beginning to doubt ourselves, so to score the first goal today was the best feeling ever,” said Billen. “Now I want to do it all over again tomorrow.”
Still, Uppal couldn’t help but show his emotion as he greeted his team to begin a day which truly looked like the end of Fleetwood Park’s streak of consecutive B.C.’s finals appearances.
“I almost cried in the warm-up this morning,” Uppal admitted. “I told the girls that we’d done so many good things but we just couldn’t get out of this group. The ball just didn’t want to go in yesterday. But I told them again that we’re never out of it and these girls, they know it.”
Fleetwood Park is set to face the winner of the Centennial vs. R.A. McMath semifinal in Friday’s 11:15 a.m. title tilt.
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