By Thomas Becker
He remembers it like it was yesterday – the game that defined his team's season and their identity.
"We were so close," said women's rugby coach, John LaBoyne. "We dominated the second half and we were 30 seconds away from scoring and taking that game."
22-17 was the final in that semifinal matchup against the Acadia Axewomen, which would have earned them a trip to the finals. A heartbreaking loss to say the least, but it was a moment that said a lot about who the Panthers are as competitors.
"I always knew they were mentally and physically tough, but I didn't realize to what extent," said the reigning Coach of the Year. "It was in that game where the belief really set in amongst our players."
That belief has since carried over into training camp, along with more expectations – a word that hasn't been floated around the department in quite some time.
During the off-season, LaBoyne challenged his players to take on the summer league as a way to refine their skills and gain valuable experience.
Close to 50 per cent of his current roster played for the Charlottetown Rugby Football Club (CRFC) of the Nova Scotia Senior Rugby League. In their inaugural season, overseen by LaBoyne's co-coach James Voye, the club went undefeated and captured the league championship.
Now, with a championship on their resumé, there's a quiet confidence resonating amongst those players that they hope will benefit the Panthers in a tough AUS.
"They now know what it takes to become champions," LaBoyne said. "70 to 80 per cent of what they did is what we do, so the transition has been a lot easier."
As champions, these players carry what LaBoyne likes to call "nuggets" of experience that they can use should familiar scenarios arise.
"I often say rugby skills, emotions and thought processes are little nuggets that you put in your pocket. Now at any time, they can reach in their pocket and rely on one of those nuggets to help them."
LaBoyne is hoping his veteran players will pass down that valuable knowledge to his 20 new recruits who look to make their mark on an up and coming program.
"We want them talking and learning from each other, it will only make us better in the long run," he said.
Seven rookies, including standouts Amanda Baker and Elizabeth McQuaid, have already made strong impressions on their coaching staff and figure to get playing time on the 23-man rotation set for Saturday's matchup.
What fans can expect to see from their 2017 Panthers is a confident, fast-paced team willing to execute a game plan that encourages creativity and forward thinking.
"We're constantly trying new things and experimenting on the field," LaBoyne said. "If something doesn't work, we'll find a way to make something happen."
Sept. 9 (2 p.m.) @ Acadia
Sept. 16 (2 p.m.) vs St. FX
Sept. 23 (2 p.m) vs Saint Mary's
Oct. 1 (2 p.m.) @ St. FX
Oct. 7 (2 p.m.) vs Acadia
Oct. 12 (7 p.m.) @ Saint Mary's