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Kenn Oliver
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For the first time in three years, Challenge Cup playoffs will be on grass

Holy Cross Kirby Group coach Mike Kirby (with hat) talks to his players during a practice session at Charlie Bhnisch Field in the Mundy Pond area of St. John’s on Wednesday evening. Holy Cross plays its home games, and normally practises, on the FieldTurf at King George V Park in St. John’s, but with this weekend’s provincial Challenge Cup final being played on the grass of Centennial Field in St. Lawrence, defending champion Holy Cross has been preparing by holding workouts on natural surfaces, like the one at Mundy Pond.

This weekend, the Molson Challenge Cup provincial men’s soccer playoffs return to the grass covered Centennial Field in St. Lawrence for the first time since 2010.

In the time between, artificial turf pitches like the one at King George V Park, have been created at Mount Pearl’s Gushue Recreation Complex and Conception Bay South’s Topsail pitch. It’s on these fields where the vast majority of regular-season games are played. A handful of games were held on the grass at Feildian Grounds.

“Soccer’s meant to be played on grass,” says Feildians Ernst & Young coach John Acreman.

“The perfect pitches allow our season to be extended, and they’re great to play on, but I’m an old-school soccer player and I really love the opportunity to play on grass any time I get it.

“It’s a true feel for the game when you go back to play on grass.”

Acreman is not alone in his appreciation for all-natural surfaces. Both Mount Pearl That Pro  Look/Molson coach Walt Mavin and, obviously, St. Lawrence Labatt Laurentians boss Blair Aylward prefer to play on the real green.

“You can’t beat playing on real grass,” says Mavin. “It adds something to the game.”

“(Centennial Field) is pretty much the only grass field we play on anymore and we’ve played on it a lot more than anybody else,” suggests Aylward.

“I’d consider that an advantage for us.”

So does Holy Cross Kirby Group coach Mike Kirby, whose personal preference for his team, the reigning four-time defending champs, is an artificial surface.

“We play a style of game that’s on the ground, possession soccer and that’s easier to do on turf,” says Kirby, who, like Mavin has been putting his team through the paces on grass pitches in preparation for the playoffs.

The coaches, to a man, contend the game can be a little slower on grass fields than on artificial turfs and that the overall game is a little different.

“When you pass the ball over a 20-yard space on turf, it’s not hitting a bump or a rut. You know when it’s coming to you that it’s going to hit your foot,” Kirby says.

“On grass, you’ve got to keep your eye on that ball the whole while it’s travelling to you. If it hits a bump, it could be gone.”

Acreman says it’s more natural.

“There’s little hops, bounces and bumps in the field that you’ve got to adjust for.”

Not that playing on grass is anything new.

“They’ve all grown up playing on grass,” says Mavin, “so it’s not like they’re going to something that’s foreign to them.”

 

SEMIFINAL PREVIEWS

 

Holy Cross-Feildians

The first game to be played at Centennial Field is a 1 o’clock semifinal matinee on Friday featuring Holy Cross and the Feildians.

In their six head-to-head meetings this season, the Crusaders took four, lost one and played the Double Blues to a scoreless draw in late July.

Despite the better record, Kirby says Holy Cross is in for a “tough one” against a “big, strong, and fit” Feildians side. Outside of a 7-1 drubbing early in the season, the Feildians stayed close in the rest of the matches.

“I knew coming into this season that Feildians were going to be very stiff competition,” Kirby says.

“I’ve been told they trained very hard all winter and they’ve proven it this season.”

The Crusaders head into the weekend without any injuries, but they’ll still be without rookie of the year finalist Aidan Cusak due to work commitments.

More importantly, Kirby won’t have Tyler Forsey, who scored a staggering 31 goals this season. The league’s leading scorer has been  invited to tryout for the Dresden Dynamo’s under-23 team. The Dynamos’ parent club competes in the Bundesliga 2, the second division. Forsey leaves for Germany today.

“I would love to have him there, there’s no doubt about that,” Kirby says of Forsey’s absence

“But we’ve got three or four guys who play on our attack who are top notch. I’m not too concerned.”

Acreman, meanwhile, is expecting a good match from Cross, regardless of Forsey’s absence.

“We respect the way they play, you have to respect them as the four-time winners.,” he says.

 

St. Lawrence-Mount Pearl

The Laurentians last played for the title in 2009, when they lost to the Crusaders. Since then, they have been eliminated in three straight semifinal contests, including twice by the Mount Pearl team they’ll face in Friday’s second semifinal set for 4 p.m.

Aylward says fans in St. Lawrence are not accustomed to their beloved Laurentians coming up short in consecutive years, and while there’s definite pressure to do something this year, he says the team chooses to look at it as a positive.

“We’re luckier than everyone else because they (the Laurentians’ fans) act as a 12th player sometimes,” he says, “and they give you that extra boost that you need in tight games and when you’re tired in the last 15 or 20 minutes and need to find some strength or energy.

“They can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing.”

That’s not lost on Mavin, who admits “playing St. Lawrence in St. Lawrence is not easy task.”

The Mount Pearl coach, who won’t have the services of concussed defender John Kelly this weekend, knows the Laurentians, — based on their record this season and specifically over the last three meetings between the clubs, all St. Lawrence wins —  are the heavy favourites. But in a one-game playoff, he says “anything is possible.”

“We’re not looking past the first half Friday,” he says.

“We need to get a good start against St. Lawrence and try to impose our game a little bit.”

The semifinal winners move on to play in Sunday’s 3 p.m. championship game.

All three games will be broadcast on CHCM 740 Marystown and will be available streaming online by searching “CHCM”.

Russ Murphy will do the play-by-play with Rick Farrell providing the colour commentary. Challenge Cup league commission Gord Dunphy will offer analysis.

 

koliver@thetelegram.com

Twitter@telykenn

 

 

 

Organizations: Molson, Holy Cross Kirby Group

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, King George V Park, Conception Bay Germany

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