By Ned Bekavac
Given the competitive nature of sport, you could probably forgive the Guelph Oaks for sporting some sassy smiles after the team upset its city rivals in the Kitchener and District Soccer League’s semifinals on Sunday.
Instead, Oaks co-coach Graham Smith is looking at his team’s berth in the KDSL’s playoff championship game as a chance to give the Royal City two KDSL trophies this season.
“We want to do the double for Guelph, and win the playoff championship,” says Smith.
The Guelph Rangers won this season’s league trophy by finishing in first in the regular season with a 16-1-1 record. But their dream of winning the playoff title, too, was dashed this past Sunday when the Oaks topped them 2-0 in the semifinals.
“It was a tremendous performance for them to win the league,” said Smith of the Rangers’ run to the title. The rivalry between the Rangers and the Oaks was a great one this year, he says.
“The teams played really, really hard, in the good sense,” says Smith.
Thanks to the Oaks’ win in the Royal City derby, the team is off to the KDSL playoff championship game this Sunday against Hrvat.
Not too shabby for a team that is in its first year in the league, got off to a slow start, and then surged to grab the sixth and final KDSL playoff spot late in the season. The squad has given rebirth to the storied Guelph Oaks name of yore and, here they are, going for gold.
Smith says while he’s noticed improvement in his team since day one of the season, the team’s success in the second half of the campaign had more to do with dedication, sticking to the task at hand, and the players and coaches becoming more and more familiar with each other.
“The team’s performances in the first half of the season were generally excellent, and the turnaround in results reflects the continued dedication in training and persistent hard work during games, with added belief,” he says.
“No doubt the Oaks grew as a team the more the season progressed. The team spirit has been tremendous.”
He says that in life, and in sport, if you keep on doing the right thing that, “I believe it eventually works out.”
Smith says: “The results just didn’t go our way in the first half of the season.”
They sure did in the second half. The Oaks are undefeated in their last 8 league games – 10 including the playoff victories.
In mid-July, the Oaks lost to the Rangers, a defeat that left them with a 2-8-0 record. Since then, they are 6-0-2 in league play, and 8-0-2 including playoffs.
The team is by no means a prolific one offensively, but they’re quite stingy in their own end of the field.
The Oaks’ top scorer, Kafui Hotsonyame, had five goals this season – which doesn’t even put him among the top-15 goal scorers in the league.
Smith says the defensive nature of the team just sort of fell into place naturally.
“You play to a team’s strengths,” he says.
“We didn’t have an abundance of natural strikers. But as you know, they’re few and far between at any level of soccer.”
In Hrvat, the Oaks are taking on one of the more storied franchises in the KDSL. The teams traded victories in league play this season. Hrvat beat the Oaks 3-1 here in Guelph in the second match of the season and the Oaks paid Hrvat back in July with a 3-1 win of their own in Kitchener. In a July Cup game, Hrvat beat the Oaks 5-2.
Smith gives props to their Sunday foes and says the match-up could be a dandy.
“They’re an excellent team. They’ve got pace, and they’re strong and athletic. It’s great,” he says.
The Oaks were 8-8-2 this season and Hrvat was 10-4-4.
The championship game is on Sunday Sept. 30, at 6:30 p.m., at Woodside Park in Kitchener.