SEASON PREVIEW: Young Panthers look to earn first finals berth since 2006

SEASON PREVIEW: Young Panthers look to earn first finals berth since 2006

By Thomas Becker

In sports it's often said internal competition yields the strongest team and UPEI's rugby squad is no different.

Head coach John LaBoyne has taken that motto to heart and has been transparent about wanting to field the best team possible. As a result, all 34 roster spots were fought for and earned, including the starting 15 tasked at toppling some of Canada's top teams, who happen to reside in the AUS.

"James (Voye) and I have always had the policy where the best player at a position plays no matter what year they're in," said the 2016 AUS Coach of the Year. "We don't want third, fourth or fifth year players resting on their laurels because somebody will be snapping at their heels, and that's what we want." 

It's safe to say it's no longer enough to simply field a team. Sights are set higher than ever before and the coaches have done an admirable job, through recruitment and endless support, of giving the players confidence in their team and a reason to lay it all on the line for each other.  

Second-year flanker Brinten Comeau is just one example of a standout athlete who bought in right away, trusted in what the program is building toward and found success as the team's leading scorer. Now, as a young leader on a youthful team, she's eager to step on the field once again and help take this program to new heights.  

"With all these young, skilled players coming in, it really shows the standard UPEI rugby is going for," said the reigning AUS Rookie of the Year. "These new players bring a lot to the team and it's very exciting to be part of."

Much like Comeau, Sophie Carragher also came into her own in 2018 and solidified herself as a threat on the pitch and finished with a career-high 20 points in six games. She, too, echoed similar sentiments and hinted at something special brewing with this group of tough-minded women.

"The group we have this year has a new energy that is noticeably different compared to training camps we've had in my previous years, and I think it's a good indicator of the season ahead," Carragher said.

The offseason was used to target talent that could step in right away and push for starting assignments in hopes of challenging Acadia and St. FX. Dayna Pitter, for example, is a 20-year-old recruit from Calgary who brings versatility, a wealth of experience and a championship mentality to the team. Saint John native, Emily Duffy, and Charlottetown's own, Julia Freeburn, participated in Canada's under-18 selection camp and also bring added knowledge, while Agustina Cohen, Mia Fradsham, Mackenzie Hale and others round out a very strong recruitment class for UPEI.

"In the four years John and I have been together, I think this is the rookie class we're most excited about," Voye said.

While there's plenty of optimism surrounding this team and its offseason haul, fair or not, they will ultimately be judged by the results on the field and whether they can surpass either Acadia or St. FX to reach the championship game.

"It's going to take a lot of focus and commitment on their end and if they do that, I think we're capable of making some noise and knocking one of those teams off."

In order to accomplish the feat, they'll first have to improve the finesse side of the game—passing, spotting holes to run through and ball possession. LaBoyne recalled one play last year that involved 17 consecutive passes leading to a try. It's that level of execution they're looking for this season. It's no easy task, especially when faced against opportunistic opponents who capitalize on mistakes, but the coaches have been working diligently with the players. 

"Repetition, repetition, repetition that's all it is. We're always looking at hand position, arms and follow through," LaBoyne said. "If they've been playing all summer they should be able to pass and make the right reads." 

If they can follow that structure and still maintain the scrappy, physical team they're known for in rucks and scrums, scoring chances could rise which in turn would limit their opponent's touches. 

Another point of focus in training camp has been field coverage and stopping what's in front them. Too often, the opposition went around them with ease, so LaBoyne has been helping his team find that internal instinct where they react and go, rather than looking, pausing and then reacting.

It's a lot to ask for a team with few veterans, but the emergence of players like Comeau and Carragher bridging the gap between youth and experience will benefit the team now and in the years to come. And the hope is that results soon follow. 

"They work so hard and they deserve the results," LaBoyne said. "I tell them to go as hard as they can and leave everything on the field. Win, lose or draw, never walk away with any regrets."

Tickets are on sale now. Home opener is Friday, Sept. 6 at 5 p.m. >>>