For the longest time, Cari James thought her students were just joking around.
Back in September, when the school year began, Elgin Park Secondary Grade 12 student Justin Duck and a few of his soccer teammates would badger James – who teaches English and Spanish at the school – about coaching the school’s senior boys team.
Every day for more than two weeks, they’d come into her classroom.
“Coach us. We need a coach. C’mon, help us out.”
It took weeks for James – who has taught at Elgin Park for 13 years but admits she’s “not at all athletic” and has zero coaching experience in any sport – to finally realize the boys were serious.
“It was just kind of this running joke where they’d ask, I’d laugh, and that was it,” she explained.
“Then one day, finally, I asked, ‘are you actually serious?’ Justin said, ‘Of course I’m serious – do you want me to get the whole team in here right now to prove it to you? I can have everyone here in five minutes.’
“So that’s when I said I’d do it. They even made me sign a contract so I couldn’t get out of it after I agreed.”
Before James agreed to serve as the squad’s coach, they were in something of a pickle. The coaches from last year’s team were not back in the fold – “We fired them,” laughed Grade 12 player Leighton Thorne – and time was running out to have a member of the EPS staff sponsor the team. Without one, they would not be allowed to play.
And for a group of boys – the team’s core players had played together on the senior team since they were junior-aged – that had won just one game in three seasons, they did not want their high-school soccer careers to end with the team folding.
They wanted a chance to end things on their own terms. And so far, so good.
The team lost its first game of the regular season, but won the next – 5-1 over Sullivan Heights – and rolled to a 5-2-1 record. In the playoffs, they advanced from Surrey championships to Fraser Valleys – the first Elgin team to do so since the mid-’90s. At Valleys, they placed fifth overall, which was enough to punch their ticket to the provincials for the first time in school history.
The B.C. Senior Boys Soccer Championships begin Thursday in Burnaby Lake.
“I thought we had potential, I always did,” said Duck. “Our first goal was just to win one game. Then it became, ‘OK, let’s win another one,’ or ‘let’s win five games’ and then ‘let’s make Fraser Valleys’ and now we’re at provincials. We never looked too far ahead.
“It’s kind of like this fairytale story of a season.”
And while James is listed as the team’s official coach, she says she’s more of a motivator, while the actual coaching is done by Duck, whom she is quick to credit for the team’s on-field success.
“From Day 1, Justin has been the coach. He got the group together, he organized and led the tryouts, he leads the practices and holds the strategy meetings with a few of the other guys,” James said. “I’m just the glorified cheerleader, but that’s what they wanted. Right away, they said, ‘We don’t need someone to tell us how to play. We need encouragement, we need some positive energy.’”
James brought that energy in the form of purple pompoms – which she waves on the sidelines after goals – as well as a bubbly, positive attitude that’s been infectious to a team that was used to losing and, the players will admit, not a whole lot of fun.
“I think, at first, they didn’t like the pompoms, but now I think they like them,” she laughed. “And I write them silly little songs and sing to them, that kind of thing – and they love it.”
On the field, the team has been buoyed by a strong defence – led by a talented back-line and the goalkeeping of Colton Cook, who had been plying his trade in Germany for SC Stätzling’s U17 team but returned to Elgin Park after the team’s first game.
But as much as anything, James credits the team’s out-of-the-blue success to the simple fact that the boys are having fun, and playing for themselves.
“These guys, they get enough coaching in their (club) leagues, and I think they just wanted the opportunity to have fun, and play how they wanted to play, and not have a coach yelling at them about this or that.
“Before this year, they never really took high-school soccer seriously because they didn’t really care about the team… but this is their team now, and they care about it.”
They’ve started to get some notoriety within the walls of their own school, too. In previous years, Thorne said, the team was something of an afterthought. But now, students show up to their games at South Surrey Athletic Park to cheer them on, and players – and James, too – are stopped in the halls and asked about how the team is doing.
“I don’t know if anyone expected us to succeed. I think people – even in our school – thought we were going to be a bit of a joke, playing with no coach,” Thorne said. “But Ms. James saved the day.”
James says the team “has put boys soccer on the map” at Elgin, and though her coaching role involves more paperwork than she expected, she called it “one of the most fun things I’ve ever done as a teacher.”
Elgin Park will begin its run at a provincial title Thursday, and the team’s senior players waffle between being just happy to be there and wanting to win the whole thing. But regardless of the outcome, the season has already been a huge success, they all agree.
“Nine of our starters are in Grade 12, so this is our only shot for a lot of us,” Duck said.
“We have to take it.”