For the second time in as many years – and for what feels like the hundredth time in the last decade, according to the team’s longtime rugby coach – the Earl Marriott Mariners will square off against the Shawinigan Lake Stags at B.C. High School Rugby Championships.
The South Surrey senior boys side earned a date with the Vancouver Island private school – widely regarded as the top rugby program in the country – after a come-from-behind 27-19 win over the Yale Lions last Thursday in the Fraser Valley championship game.
And while the victory was a welcome one for Roberts’ crew, the coach knows from experience that the path ahead is not exactly a fun one to travel. Last year, Shawinigan clobbered EMS 102-10 in the quad-A semifinal.
“The last 10 years, there’s been no program that’s lost to Shawinigan more than us. We’re always the team that has to play them – this is going to be our seventh time against them in a B.C. semifinal,” said EMS coach Adam Roberts.
As was the case last year, the Mariners, as Fraser Valley champs, are elevated from the triple-A level for provincials to the quad-A division – a two-year-old bracket that was created as a way to keep Shawinigan Lake and another private school, Vancouver’s St. George’s Saints, from dominating the triple-A tournament; prior to 2016, either Shawinigan or St. George’s had won every B.C. title since 2002.
Last year, EMS also defeated Yale in the final Valley game. The Mariners lost both its quad-A tilts, while Yale went on to win a provincial triple-A championship.
This year’s quad-A tournament features the same four teams as last year’s – Shawinigan Lake, St. George’s, Oak Bay and EMS. Roberts said his team’s goal is to finish as the top public school in B.C., meaning they’d have to defeat Oak Bay in the third-place game if both squads lost their opening-round matchups.
“We’re proud of this accomplishment and we’re stoked to be back in the top-four – I feel like that’s where we belong, in the top-four or five in the province – and our goal is to come out with a medal,” Roberts said. “It’d be nice to go out with a win in one of these last two games.”
And though their ‘reward’ for last year’s win is an next-to-impossible draw against the Stags, Roberts said it doesn’t lessen the excitement that comes with winning another Valley banner.
Yale – which defeated EMS 50-26 earlier in the year – led early in last week’s game, too.
The Mariners trailed 14-7 at halftime but the tide turned in the second half once the Peninsula squad’s senior players took over – sometimes Roberts said he’s been waiting weeks to see.
“As a competitor myself, I expect to win. As a player, as a coach, that’s what I expect every time. But this year, I wasn’t sure. I knew we could compete and I knew we could battle, and I knew we had the players that could do it, but I just didn’t know if these guys would be able to find it in them,” Roberts admitted.
“We kind of struggled with commitment at the beginning of the year, but the last month or so, something changed… It’s tough sometimes to instill that confidence in them, and it was a year of trying to make that happen.
“But (at halftime against Yale), a lot of the guys just stepped up and said, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’ They grew up quickly, and really just went out there and rallied. It was phenomenal.”
Roberts was especially complimentary of senior Reid Davis – a member of Canada’s under-18 program – as well as Grade 11 Ryan Renkers.
Each player had one try against Yale, while Renkers was also instrumental in setting up Davis’ score.
Provincial championships, to be held at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium, begin Wednesday, May 31 and wrap up Saturday, June 3.
Looking ahead to Shawnigan Lake, Roberts’ said the team’s strategy isn’t the most complex:
“We’ll go and throw the kitchen sink at them, and see how it turns out,” he said.