Earl Marriott Mariners’ Carson Burgin (left) and Liam Morrsion (right) tackle Semiahmoo’s Luke Warkentin during the 2014 Sandcastle Cup, which Semi won in overtime. (File photo)

Earl Marriott Mariners’ Carson Burgin (left) and Liam Morrsion (right) tackle Semiahmoo’s Luke Warkentin during the 2014 Sandcastle Cup, which Semi won in overtime. (File photo)

Sandcastle Cup rugby grudge match returns to South Surrey

High-school game between Earl Marriott, Semiahmoo ‘one of the great traditions’

It may feel a little like old times at South Surrey Athletic Park Tuesday afternoon, as a pair of longtime adversaries renew a decades-old rivalry on the rugby pitch.

The Semiahmoo Totems’ and Earl Marriott Mariners’ senior boys rugby teams are scheduled to square off for the Sandcastle Cup, the long-fought-over trophy that has not been played for since 2015.

“Without question, it’s one of the great traditions,” said Semiahmoo coach Mike McMartin, who has been on the sideline for his fair share of Sandcastle grudge matches.

“I’ve been teaching at Semi for 20 years and it’s always been one of the great events at the school. Absolutely, it’s great that it’s back.”

Traditionally, the game – which this year is set for 4 p.m. – draws large crowds of spectators from both schools, with many students decked out in face-paint and school colours. In the past, the crowd’s rowdiness has crossed a line or two – in 2010, two students stripped down and darted across the pitch, to the delight of the young crowd but to the chagrin, no doubt, of school officials – but spectators have been well-behaved, but still enthusiastic, since.

“You get people all dressed up, you get a lot of kids out – it kind of just adds to the ambiance of it,” said EMS coach Adam Roberts. “It’s a pretty fantastic day.”

This year, the game is gaining momentum online – Roberts said a social-media hashtag #FillTheHill, is helping to boost the game’s profile.

“But even before social media, it was still such a big part of the fabric of both school’s Grade 11 and 12 classes,” he said.

The Sandcastle Cup’s history on the Semiahmoo Peninsula runs deep, with each team reeling off impressive winning streaks over the years. Semiahmoo won the trophy each year from 1995 until 2008 – and 19 of 20 overall – until EMS broke the streak with a victory in 2009. Since then, it’s been the Mariners – whose lone win prior to 2009 came in 1994 – who have dominated the annual grudge match, winning every year but 2014, when the lower-ranked Totems upset the Mariners in overtime to bring the trophy back to Semiahmoo.

Earl Marriott reclaimed the trophy with a win in 2015, but there was no game in 2016 – Semi did not field a senior boys team that year – or last season. The game was also not played in 2013 due to scheduling conflicts.

Both Roberts and McMartin are well-aware of the game’s significance on the local sports calendar, and themselves have had wavering allegiances through the game’s history. Roberts is a former Semiahmoo player, who was part of the Totem’s dominant run of victories in the late ’90s before turning to coaching at Marriott, where he’s enjoyed another long run of success.

Roberts said he’s simply aiming to even the historical score – which by his count is still 22-10 for the Totems.

“When I started (coaching at EMS), it was 19-1 for Semiahmoo… We’ve started to get some back, but I always say that when we finally get the record back to even, I’ll retire,” he laughed.

“I don’t want to overtake them (overall), I’ll just leave it tied… Semiahmoo is still deep in my blood – I absolutely love that school and my time there.”

McMartin, meanwhile, is a longtime Semiahmoo senior boys coach, though this is his first year back at the helm in six seasons. He took an extended break from coaching the team so he could instead watch his own son, Rhys, play for Robert’s Mariners until he graduated high school two years ago.

“Even then, I was secretly cheering for Semiahmoo,” he laughed.

Tuesday’s game is an exhibition contest, and will be the only time during the season that the two teams meet. This year, under a newly devised system, EMS plays its regular-season games in a five-team premier league against provincial powerhouses Shawnigan Lake, Carson Graham, St. George’s and Oak Bay, while Semiahmoo plays in the triple-A Tier 1 league.

Though they’ve yet to win a league game against their premier-league rivals, Earl Marriott could be considered the favourite heading into Tuesday’s game, though Roberts was quick to pump the brakes on any favourite/underdog talk.

At the Sandcastle Cup, he said, anything is possible.

“Everyone is so young and they just get so wrapped up in the moment and just bring it,” he said. “You get everybody’s best effort in the Sandcastle Cup, and there’s so much energy and emotion – that’s the great equalizer.

“It’s anyone’s game. You just hope your team shows up.”