Powell River Villa was given one more chance to stay in Division 2 of the Vancouver Island Soccer League on Sunday, July 23, during a challenge match against against Victoria's Fernwood Town, but defensive breakdowns kept the team relegated to Division 3.
Despite a strong start, excellent goaltending by Corey McCracken and an impassioned push in the second half to tie the game, Villa ended up on the losing end of a 2-1 match at Timberlane Park.
"It's a tough day," said McCracken. "The whole season was riding on this game, so it was a very disappointing loss."
Finishing last in Division 2 in March, Villa was already prepared to move down to the third division, but due to the Cowichan team dropping out of the second division, Villa and Division 2 runner-ups Fernwood battled Sunday for dibs on the empty slot.
"Fernwood is as good as any team in second division," said incoming head coach Chris McDonough. "They got promoted today instead of us, and they'll do well in second division."
McDonough took over as Villa head coach after what the team thought was the end of their season. Rules of the challenge game dictated that only last year's roster play and coach, making McDonough ineligible.
Villa president and acting coach for the match Jamie Zroback said two crucial mistakes cost the club. Both Fernwood goals came on defensive breakdowns that were a mainstay in the Villa's disappointing season last year.
"Take those two mistakes back and we were the better team and we commanded the play," said Zroback, "but that was the story all last season."
Villa fell behind early in the first half of the challenge match on a miscue by McCracken and a Villa defender that led to an easy goal by Fernwood.
Villa lacked energy near the end of the first half, but were kept in the game by a fired-up McCracken, who made several key saves, including some spectacular lunges to collect the ball from Fernwood strikers.
"We were all playing with our hearts on our sleeves and with a lot of passion," said McCracken.
Villa came out in the second half with a noticeable boost of energy, thanks in part to bringing veterans James Smart and David Bertrand into the match.
"We started with a couple of veteran players on the bench, giving us the option to change the game, if needed," said Zroback. "Those subs were made at half time and we commanded the second half."
Villa were able to tie up the game in the first few minutes of the second on a play that started at mid-field with a slick pass by Kurtis Dennison, putting veteran forward Kye Taylor one-on-one with the Fernwood goaltender.
"Kurtis made some moves and got past a couple of their guys, then sent the ball into Kye, and Kye got around their keeper and slotted it into the corner," said McDonough. "That was what we wanted, to get Kye isolated, but we just couldn't shut the door after that to get the result we wanted."
Fernwood took the lead with a late goal in the second half and Villa wasn't able to find the net again, a familiar story during the club's disappointing season.
"It's those defensive mistakes that really hurt," said McDonough. "We were good enough to get a winning result; we just need to be more focused defensively because that lack of focus resulted in two goals today."
Still on the bench beside Zroback and animated throughout the game, McDonough said he is optimistic that Villa will do well next year in Division 3 play.
"We've got some new player personnel coming in that will give us other options, so I'm excited to see what happens in the coming year," said McDonough.
Before the game, the two teams held a moment of silence for fallen Villa players Braxton Leask and Dylan Buckle. It was the first time Villa took the field since the death of the two young men in June.
Vancouver Island Soccer League president Vince Greco was in attendance at the challenge game to show his support.
"We wanted to come here today to show that we care about the Villa group," said Greco, "and that we're here to support them in any way."
McCracken commended his team for their effort on the field under difficult circumstances. He said Villa will return with a fresh perspective next year in Division 3.
"There were a lot of thoughts behind this game because of the circumstances. Again, it was a very tough loss," said McCracken. "We will regroup and carry on. We have some great depth with some of the young guys coming up next year."