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Despite stuttering starts, Holy Cross was just fine at the finish

The Holy Cross Kirby Group Crusaders will represent Newfoundland and Labrador at the national Challenge Cup men's soccer championship early next month in Surrey, B.C.
The Holy Cross Kirby Group Crusaders will represent Newfoundland and Labrador at the national Challenge Cup men's soccer championship early next month in Surrey, B.C.

Three days is not a season, but for the Holy Cross Kirby Group Crusaders, the Molson Challenge Cup playoff tournament held over the weekend did mirror the rest of their 2017 campaign.

“When you look at it, those three weekend games almost summed our season,” said first-year coach Jeremy Babstock, whose Holy Cross side downed the defending champion St. Lawrence Labatt Laurentians 3-1 in Sunday’s final at King George V Park in St. John’s.
The victory came just a couple of days after the Laurentians had beaten Holy Cross in the 1-2 Page Playoff game, forcing the Crusaders into a Saturday semifinal. Holy Cross won that game, blanking Mount Pearl First Choice Haircutters 2-0, then made the most of their chance at a rematch with their arch-rivals from the Burin Peninsula.
In early June, there were questions whether the Crusaders would be able to make the playoffs, let alone win a championship. Holy Cross, with its new coach and significant roster changes, was winless in its first five games, with three ties and two losses, including a 4-0 setback to St. Lawrence. But the team began to build up points and confidence, beginning with a 2-0 win over the Laurentians.
“We had a slow start, but got a little better,” said Babstock. “We went through July very well, became more consistent and you could the team really start to believe in itself.”
He saw his side tell a condensed version of that tale on the weekend.
“We had a slow start with that first game Friday,” he said. “I don’t (if it was the result) of nervousness. Although I thought we played pretty well, we just didn’t perform well enough to win.
“But we kept our focus and showed it in what you can call a do-or-die game (versus Mount Pearl). We didn’t sit back, we went on offence, putting pressure on those guys and we took the same sort of strategy — and confidence — into Sunday.”
Holy Cross did it with a much younger lineup than the one wearing red and gold in previous seasons. About a half-dozen veterans — including 2016 team leading scorer Zach Wade — weren’t back in 2017.
“It was a different journey, to say the least,” said Babstock. “With a new team this year — it was a transition year, I guess we’ll say, for lack of a better term — and so many youth players added in and some veteran players moving on, based on life and work things.
 “Kudos to the players, because we didn’t have a deep bench. Past years, we’d have a squad of 20-plus players, but for most of the this year, it was around 15.”
That changed at the end of the season with players released from duty with the Canada Games team and St. John’s U17 side.
Babstock had a lot of praise for returning veterans Jake Warren, Mike Dunne, Andrew Stanford, and Jeff Slaney, as well as goalkeeper Thomas Pieroway and defender Alex Pretty, the MVP of the Challenge Cup tourney.
“But you know, the young guys we put on really stepped up their game. You put in a sub to keep the energy going and the ones we put on, and they did just that,” said Babstock, making particular mention of Harry Carter and Jacob Grant.
“They saw a lot of minutes this weekend and they played a big part our success,” he said.
On Sunday, the Laurentians opened the scoring with a goal from Jordan Caines 24 minutes in, but Stanford knotted the score just a minute later.
“Timing of goals can be everything and once we tied it up quickly, once we had that quick response, the momentum switched to us and we never really let it go,” said Babstock, whose team took the lead on a Laurentians’ own goal — an unfortunate deflection for St. Lawrence — before the half.
Tyler Kirby scored with about 10 minutes left in the game to effectively seal the deal and send Holy Cross to the national Challenge Cup championship Oct. 4-9 in Surrey, B.C.
It’s the third provincial title for Holy Cross in four years, with all coming with championship final wins over St. Lawrence.
Babstock, who won five Challenge Cups as a player, agrees beating Big Blue means something a little extra, but not just because of the historic rivalry that has seen the teams dominate the provincial league; between them, the Laurentians (15) and Holy Cross (9) have won 24 of the last 26 Labour Day-weekend finals.
“There’s just so much respect for that team for what they’ve done over the years, it can’t help but be extra special to beat St. Lawrence,” said Babstock.
“Whenever we play them, whether it’s at the start of the season, or whether it’s St. Lawrence Day weekend, or whether it’s the playoffs, it’s always hyped.
“So there’s that energy that comes with the games and with winning them.”

bmcc@thetelegram.com

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