Facing a mountain of pressure and expectation, Shawnigan's Iron Women have climbed to the top of the Province.
After winning their first AAA title a year ago, Shawnigan's Girls XV entered this season knowing that every game would be its own challenge. With injuries to key players and absences for academics and community events, the team knew that hosting the Provincial tournament – especially as defending champs – would be tough.
Hosted by Shawnigan and Brentwood College School, the Provincial tournament saw Shawnigan enter the top tier as the No. 1 seed, providing a favourable draw but also the weight of expectation.
The girls got off on the right foot, beating Earl Marriott 42-15 in a Thursday quarter-final before topping Gleneagle 42-5 in Friday's semifinal.
Saturday's championship game, however, was a different animal. With a light rain falling on the Canada Field and a large crowd on hand, Shawnigan got a dream start when forward Mikayla B. punched her way into the corner of the try zone just a minute in.
Carson Graham, however, wasn't about to let Shawnigan run away with it. For the next 20 minutes, the Eagles controlled the play, holding the ball deep inside Shawnigan territory. Carson Graham was awarded one try on a Shawnigan penalty, and continued to press throughout the first half.
"They were prepared to gain it by the inch," recalls Coach Shannon Atkins, "So we were prepared for that kind of goal-line defence." Atkins knew that shutting down Carson Graham's No. 10, in particular, would be key, and she focused her team on pressuring their central players and forcing the visitors to play a pick-and-go style.
While Shawnigan's defence-first mentality kept the hosts alive, it was moving the ball to the wings that made the difference, offensively. Late in the first half, Shawnigan finally emerged from the defensive zone, ultimately moving the ball to winger Emily F. for a try and the lead. The second half saw two more winger tries – both scored by left winger Gracie M. – as smart decision-making and unselfish play allowed Shawnigan to forge ahead.
After what seemed like an eternity, the final whistle sounded and the 43 athletes making up Shawnigan's Girls XV raced onto the field. "Every girl felt like they were part of that victory," Coach Atkins smiled afterwards. "The expectation was hard to deal with, but this team knew – if they performed at their best – they could do it."
With 11 players set to graduate this year – including Shawnigan Captain and Canadian International Maggie B. – Coach Atkins knows that the gauntlet has been thrown down. Atkins also saw firsthand the improvement and adjustments made by other schools, Carson Graham in particular, whom Shawnigan has now beaten in consecutive title games. "They're very strong, and they've adjusted to play like we do, moving the ball quickly and getting it to their wings." Still, Atkins says she and her fellow coaches, Dani Robb and Canadian Fifteens Captain Laura Russell, are building a program for the future.
2018-19 marks 30 years of co-education at Shawnigan. At this year's Founder's Day reunion, Becky Anderson, a member of the Class of 1993, recalled the campaign to add girls rugby to the School's athletic tapestry. Speaking in the School's chapel about that inaugural team, she said: "What remains for me are the friendships along with the core belief that there is a responsibility to make our communities, and beyond, a better place - one girls rugby team, at a time." Now the Junior School Director at SMUS, Ms. Anderson tweeted a simple message on Saturday: "Congratulations to all athletes and coaches. Well done Iron Women!"