There are a few things you might likely never hear in Newfoundland and Labrador: “I’ll take a pass on the fish ’n chips. Tofu anyone?” Or, “Thanks for the shed invite, but ‘Dancing With the Stars’ is on.” “What’s up with the accordion? Where’s the cello?”
How about this one? “Holy Cross pulled an upset win in soccer.”
Strange thing is, that last sample of folly actually rang true last year, as the Crusaders registered a rare Challenge Cup surprise, winning their third provincial men’s soccer title in four years, and seventh in the past 10 seasons.
It’s a different story this summer as Holy Cross Kirby Group is the team to beat when the Molson Challenge Cup circuit kicks off its 2018 campaign this weekend with a Crusaders-Feildians — how’s that for a matchup of leftovers from the old club system rivalries? — game 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon at King George V Park.
The new Challenge Cup season revs up into high gear the following weekend, June 2-3, with four games on the slate.
Holy Cross raised more than a few eyebrows to open the 2017 season, going winless in its first five games, with three ties and two losses, including a 4-0 humiliation at the hands of St. Lawrence.
But the team began to build up points and confidence, beginning with a 2-0 win over the Laurentians.
Holy Cross ended the year 13-5-5, and second behind the 16-3-4 St. Lawrence Laurentians. In the playoffs, St. Lawrence beat 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, before winning the whole thing with a 3-1 decision over the Laurentians.
At the nationals in British Columbia last year — St. John’s is playing host to the 2019 Canadian men’s and women’s championships, by the way — Holy Cross finished seventh.
The Crusaders return with pretty much the same lineup, including Newfoundland soccer’s player of the year in 2017, Alex Pretty, and Jake Warren, Tyler Kirby and Michael Dunne, who finished second, third and fourth in league scoring in 2017.
On top of that, the Crusaders have added Scott Woodfine and Taedy O’Rourke from Mount Pearl. Woodfine, a striker, is back in the Holy Cross fold having worn the red and gold a few years ago.
There will be a change in goal, however, as Thomas Pieroway won’t be returning. Pieroway was a first-team all-star in Atlantic intercollegiate soccer this season with St. Francis Xavier X-Men.
That means Jack Haywood, who is closing out his first year at Memorial University, and high school senior Dylan Crichton have big cleats to fill.
“We’ve experienced this before when Thomas was injured,” said Jake Stanford, who will be handling the Holy Cross coaching duties with Jeremy Babstock. “It’s not like everyone will be asked to step up because we have a couple of kids back there. We need our veterans to step and be leaders not only in that particular area, but in the dressing room as well as on the field.”
Following their title-clinching victory last season, Babstock said 2017 was a transition year, with Holy Cross inserting some youth into the lineup, as some key veterans (Zach Wade) moved on.
So there was a question, Stanford said, of whether the kids could perform in big-game situations.
They answered in a big way.
“Consequently,” Stanford said, “we won’t be surprising anyone this year. We have to be ready every game.”
It figures to be a summer of change in Challenge Cup soccer, starting with a new team from Paradise. Entry into the province’s top soccer circuit is the latest move for the Paradise Soccer Club, which was incorporated in 2009.
While Paradise is in, Corner Brook is out, due to a number of factors, not the least of which is money, a heavy travel schedule and, one can be sure, the fact the crowd from the west coast managed only one win in 23 starts last season.
Corner Brook, however, has expressed an interest in rejoining the Challenge Cup loop next season.
As for this year, Paradise has picked up a few role players here and there from other teams, such as Corner Brook and St. Lawrence.
Their strength may be behind the bench where former Challenge Cup all-star and St. Lawrence native Alec Turpin, ex-Mount Pearl and Memorial University varsity bench boss Walt Mavin and Alex McNutt are coaching Paradise.
McNutt is Paradise soccer’s manager of operations, with an extensive coaching background, including a recent stint as an assistant with Canada’s U20 women’s team.
“I think if teams go into games against Paradise like they did against C.B.S. a few years, when they were starting out and struggling, those teams will be surprised,” said Challenge Cup commissioner Damian Masterson. “They’re young, but Paradise is well coached, and they have some very good starters.”
There are three coaching changes this season, the most noteworthy coming from St. Lawrence where Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Famer Junior Edwards takes over the Laurentians from Derek Strang, who returns to coaching in the minor ranks.
In Mount Pearl, Gerry O’Brien takes over from Andrew Murphy, who is now working for the C.B.S. minor association, and will play for the C.B.S. Challenge Cup entry. And Steve Howell is working out of province, leaving Feildians in the hands of former Holy Cross player Shane Antle.
Here’s a quick look at the other Challenge Cup teams:
St. Lawrence: The Laurentians lost a couple of players, but made the biggest off-season move getting the league’s most dangerous scorer, Tyler Forsey from Mount Pearl.
Forsey, who previously played for St. Lawrence — he also toiled for Holy Cross and Feildians — led the Challenge Cup league with 21 goals last season, five more than Jake Warren.
Mount Pearl: After finishing third last season at 11-7-5, the team has undergone wholesale changes with a number of veterans – Mark Reddy, Matthew Hamlyn and Challenge Cup all-star Kevin Oram among them – have stepped aside. Add to that Woodfine and O’Rourke. “They’re well-coached and fit … but they’re going to be young,” said commissioner Masterson.
Feildians: The Double Blues were 9-6-8 last season, and always seem to be in some kind of rebuilding mode. In all likelihood, Feildians won’t contend this season, but they do have exciting young Emmanuel Dolo back in the fold. Dolo scored 10 goals last season, when he dressed for Feildians and the Canada Games team. Greg Reid, the Challenge Cup league’s top defender last year, also returns.
C.B.S.: After years of futility — they failed to win a game in 2015 and 2016 — C.B.S. made a breakthrough last season, winning seven games and tying four others in 23 games. They pretty much have the same squad, but have added a couple of youngsters to the lineup.
The following are Challenge Cup champs since 2000:
2000 — St. Lawrence
2001 — St. Lawrence
2002 — St. Lawrence
2003 — Mount Pearl
2004 — Marystown
2005 — St. Lawrence
2006 — St. Lawrence
2007 — St. Lawrence
2008 — St. Lawrence
2009 — Holy Cross
2010 — Holy Cross
2011 — Holy Cross
2012 — Holy Cross
2013 — St. Lawrence
2014 — Holy Cross
2015 — Holy Cross
2016 — St. Lawrence
2017 — Holy Cross