A strong second half push Sunday afternoon in Neepawa has clinched the Westman Senior Soccer League II championship for the Neepawa Bullets FC in the team's inaugural season in the league.
The Bullets – who also clinched the regular season trophy after finishing first in the league with a 6-1-1 record – defeated the Dauphin Rangers 3-1 at The Flats Sunday evening to clinch the
“Heading into the season we had a goal of finishing in the top half of the league in the regular season and then reaching the finals in the playoffs, so all the guys were pumped to win both trophies,” manager/player Kaiten Critchlow said of the win. “The nerves got to us in the first half and you could tell, but we headed on to the field in the second half with a bit more calm and played a great last 45 minutes of our season to claim the championship.”
Neepawa scored the first goal of the game early when Graeme Wilson sent Arlindo Corro Fernandes on a through ball that Fernandes finished to the back of the net.
Dauphin started to control the play after that though, and a defensive blunder led to a penalty shot that Dauphin put away to tie the game at 1-1 heading into the halftime break.
Neepawa looked like its old self again to start the second half, going back to its pass and possession-based style. They were rewarded early when Ryos da Silva dribbled by the defence in the 54th minute and scored Neepawa's second marker of the game.
A great back-and-forth game continued for the half, before Fernandes crossed in a ball from the right of the field that Wilson finished spectacularly off a high-kick volley to the corner of the net to clinch the 3-1 win for the Bullets.
It was Wilson's team-leading 20th goal of the season.
Shannon Plett earned the win in net for Neepawa.
“It was an intense finals,” Critchlow said. “There was some great soccer played that last 45 minutes. Our coach, my dad, Daryl Critchlow, made some great adjustments and substitutions to get us going, too.
“And some of the passing plays, or the finish Graeme had on the last goal, we really had a fun game and gave our fans a good show.”
That fan base was one of the highlights of the season, Critchlow added. There was a dedicated support crew throughout the year, and at the final game over 100 players and fans filled the stands and sidelines.
“If someone told me before the year that we would have over 100 people at a soccer game in Neepawa, I'd have asked that person what they were smoking,” Critchlow joked. “Our fan base was exceptional compared to any other team. The atmosphere on Sunday was just amazing.”
Another highlight of the year for the team was bringing together a diverse group of players that was able to compete with squads that have been together for years. The 23-man team, and its practice roster that included another 10-15 people, had players who have spent time living in over a dozen different countries.
The manager noted it was challenging to cope with the language barriers – some players have very limited English skills - and cultural on-field style differences to begin the year, but it was rewarding to come together to win the title.
“For me, the neatest thing about the season was that we had this random group of players come together, and then you watched game-to-game and practice-to-practice everyone working hard to understand each other on and off the field,” Critchlow said. “It's great to win those trophies, but it's those connections and friendships and memories that you take with you after the game and season is done that's really the neat part about sports.”
Because of social media, the team's success has also found some worldwide fame.
“It's neat because these guys all have family and friends all over the world, and our team is being talked about in I don't know how many countries right now. That's some great advertising for our community, and a pretty cool feeling as a member of the team,” the manager concluded.