Battle for the bye

John
John Browne
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Laurentians, Feildians kick off Challenge Cup opener tonight

For a team that has lost only once in the past 40 regular-season games, the Laurentians haven't been getting a whole lot of respect this Challenge Cup season.

St. Lawrence Labatt Laurentians, national bronze medal winners last season, lost only once this season, which is probably as close to a slump as the Blueshirts ever get.

Derek Strang

For a team that has lost only once in the past 40 regular-season games, the Laurentians haven't been getting a whole lot of respect this Challenge Cup season.

St. Lawrence Labatt Laurentians, national bronze medal winners last season, lost only once this season, which is probably as close to a slump as the Blueshirts ever get.

Nevertheless, there is some question whether or not the defending champions have what it takes to lift the Molson Cup one more time.

There were skepticism about the team's fitness, focus and intensity this season after a slow start. When Mount Pearl - a darkhorse this weekend, but a team that pushed St. Lawrence to the limit last season - blanked the Laurentians 1-0 June 22 in St. Lawrence, it sent shock waves throughout the Burin Peninsula community.

It is rare for the Laurentians to lose and more uncommon for them to lose at home. Centennial field is usually where the opposition's dreams go to die.

Laurentians goal scoring was down to 36 goals this season compared to 58 last year, but the 2007 league included a weak St. John's U18 team and an even weaker Burin Eagles squad. The young St. John's team was much stronger this season and Burin, mercifully, wasn't involved in the senior setup. Feildians have improved greatly and Holy Cross and Mount Pearl are capable of pulling off an upset if the opposition has an off night.

St. Lawrence coach Derek Strang has heard the doubters before, but his team has history on its side. The Laurentians, who have won the Challenge Cup provincial soccer championship the past three years and 11 of the past 13, are the favourites this weekend after a first-place finish that saw the team going 11-1-8.

The Laurentians kick off against Feildians 6:30 tonight at King George V Park. The winner earns a bye to Sunday's final. Third-place Mount Pearl takes on fourth-place Holy Cross at 8:30 p.m.

Strang is comfortable with his players conditioning and says if he makes substitutions during the weekend it will more lightly be tactical and nothing to do with a player's lack of conditioning, although, he noted ,players on any team do run out of steam from time to time.

Strang concedes his team began the season with "some fitness issues," but they've worked really hard since July.

"I don't think fitness is going to be a problem this weekend."

Overall, the Laurentians' coach is pleased with his team's effort on the season.

"We've had a very strong season. We've had a little bit of trouble finishing at certain times in the year. But we had a problem having our full team on the field at times."

The coach noted the team was without the services of star strikers Richard Kelly and Mike Howell for stretches during the season because of work commitments or injuries.

"Last year, we scored more and were sometimes up 3-0 at halftime against teams who then gave up. This year, we've been in a lot of close games which gave the opposition teams hope and we've given up second-half goals.

"The other teams are stronger this season," said Strang, "which is good for the league and good for us because we had to fight hard in a lot of those games and we didn't have to last year.

The team's defence, according to Strang, is as strong as it was last year.

For the Laurentians, it seems, there's always another challenge, always something to prove. Their reputation for being able to rise the occasion will be tested again this weekend. What they can expect is support from the most loyal fans in the province who will flock to King George V Park this weekend to support their heroes.

What provincial teams know from experience is that no matter how many ups and downs the Laurentians have during the regular season, with a few exceptions in their history, they have always managed to turn it up that extra notch in the big game. Teams underestimate the Laurentians at their peril.

"A lot of players we have are big-game players and they are all looking forward to this weekend," said Strang. "This is what you play your season for. You play for the Labour Day weekend. I think you'll see a big step up in team intensity."

jbrowne@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Molson

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, St. John's, King George V Park Burin Peninsula

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