The St. Lawrence Labatt Laurentians aren’t looking past today’s Molson Coors Challenge Cup semifinal match against Mount Pearl First Choice Molson. After all, coach Derek Strang and his team have an upset in last year’s semifinal round to remind them that nothing is certain in sports.
In the 2013 championship tournament at Centennial Field in St. Lawrence, the Laurentians beat Feildians Ernst & Young 2-0 in the final. That was after Feildians had shocked four-time defending champion Holy Cross Kirby Group 1-0 in the semifinals. The Crusaders, first-place finishers, had gone through a 27-game schedule with only three losses, finishing 23 points ahead of the Double Blues in the regular-season standings.
Strang, who wasn’t the St. Lawrence coach last year, watched that semifinal and said, “On the day, Holy Cross played as well as they could have without putting the ball into the net. It was just a case of some great defending by Feildians.”
Tonight’s contest is a rematch of last year’s other semifinal, one which St. Lawrence won 4-2. Game time is seven o’clock at King George V Park in St. John’s.
With the league being a four-team operation, this year’s playoff format involves just three clubs. First-place Holy Cross has a bye into Sunday’s final, where they’ll meet the winner of today’s match between second-place St. Lawrence and third-place Mount Pearl. Feildians finished last and out of the playoff picture.
Strang said it hasn’t been difficult to keep his players from looking past today’s contest and ahead to a possible final with long-time rival Holy Cross.
“Holy Cross wrapped up first place early, so our focus in the second half of the schedule has been wondering which team we’d play in the semifinal, Mount Pearl or Feildians,” noted Strang.
“We’ve been preparing for Mount Pearl all this week, but at the same time, if we win, we’ll be playing Cross. However, our focus won’t be shifting until that happens. Obviously, we face a tough game (tonight).
“We haven’t talked about the final. Our tactics, discussions and video sessions have been focused on Mount Pearl.
“Having said that, there are only three other teams in the league and we’ve prepared all year to face each of them. There are no surprises in Newfoundland soccer.”
In their six head-to-head regular-season meetingss, Mount Pearl and St. Lawrence each won three times, including one road win each.
“We had some pretty good games with them,” said Strang. “We played them on St. Lawrence Day on our ground and lost 2-0, so we certainly can’t look beyond them.
“They are a good team. They work hard and they’ve got so me really good players.
Strang said Mount Pearl likes to play an up tempo style of game and they counterattack well.
“We know what to expect from them.”
Mount Pearl player coach Andrew Murphy says his team isn’t intimidated by St. Lawrence “and I don’t think they are intimidated by us.
“We do respect what a lot of their players have accomplished over the years ... a lot of titles and individual awards among them.”
Murphy, who played with Feildians last year, believes St. Lawrence deserved he win over Mount Pearl in last year’s playoffs. He said Mount Pearl was lacking in fitness and depth.
“We feel like we are way ahead in both of those facets compared to last year,” he noted.
“I'm sure both teams are confident that they'll win. It's going to be a battle.
“Playoff games against St. Lawrence are the most intense, exciting games a player will get to play. They generally bring a couple hundred fans with them, and their players always save their best for this time of year. We are looking forward to it.”
Murphy believes the strength of his team is its character.
“We've had an inconsistent season, to say the least. But when we needed points towards the end of the year to earn a playoff spot, we played our best soccer earning away wins at St. Lawrence and Feildians.”
Murphy noted Mount Pearl will be without Shane Antle, who moved out of the province at the start of July.
After a slow start to the season, St. Lawrence turned it on to finish in second place and Strang says they are “headed in the right direction” going into the playoffs.
Still, he cautions, We’ve been upset and we’ve been upset teams as well. Sports can be a fickle thing.”
“I don’t believe we’ve played our best game yet. I don’t think we’ve put together a full 90 minutes yet. There are still things we could certainly be doing better. We had some good points in games, but we’ve also had some lapses. Having said that, we feel good about going into the final weekend.”
The Laurentians are dealing with a few injuries heading into tonight’s semifinal.
Star midfielder Jordi Slaney is “questionable” according to Strang.
“If he can’t play, that will really hurt us. It will certainly mean moving people around which makes us weaker in other places,” the Laurentians mentor noted.
Strang also said Paul Slaney, Trevor Ivany and Evan Myles, a finalist for rookie of the year, are nursing injuries and are game-time decisions.
For those who can’t make it into St. John’s for the playoff games, they’ll be broadcast on CHCM 740 VOCM Marystown (also available online). Russ Murphy will do the play-by-play, with Rick Farrell providing the colour commentary. Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association men’s vice-president Gord Dunphy, a former league coach, will provide analysis ... Tony Mullett will referee tonight’s semifinal, with assistant referees Phil Green and Andrew Moyst. Mike Edmunds is the fourth official. Edmunds will be in the middle for Sunday’s final, his eighth championship game slot in nine years ...