Highlanders men into PDL Championship final four

Long time coming for Victoria's Jordie Hughes, who has been with Highlanders since Day 1

Jordie Hughes

Jordie Hughes

Victoria Highlanders striker Jordie Hughes has won senior men’s provincial soccer titles with Gorge FC. He’s won multiple Jackson Cups with Gorge and the Bays United. He’s been to the Canadian nationals and to the NCAA Div. 1 Sweet 16.

But he’s never been this far, not at this high a level.

The Highlanders are in Austin, Texas today (Aug. 2) for the Premier Development League’s Championship final four. Kickoff is 3 p.m. PST between the Highlanders and Thunder Bay Chill, an all-Canadian matchup. The host Austin Aztex face the Ocean City Nor’easters in the other semifinal.

“It feels good. We knew when we started (in 2009) we could get here. I just didn’t know when it would be,” Hughes said. “To see it progress from 2009 to now, it’s an honour to be a part of it. In a way it’s hard to believe we’re finally here. And now we’re only two wins away from (winning the PDL).”

It’s the Highlanders first appearance in the championship final four and the team faces a big challenge as the Chill won the PDL title in 2008 and last appeared in the PDL’s final four in 2011.

Earlier this week, Hughes was up-Island for a significant but short two-night getaway. It just so happens he had already booked this week off for vacation from his job with the B.C. Government, mostly to celebrate the first anniversary with this wife. The team flew to Texas on Wednesday.

“It just kind of worked out. To play soccer and be able to commit to things like this you definitely need a really nice boss, and mine’s a big soccer fan,” Hughes said. “Even if I hadn’t booked it off, he probably won’t hesitate to give me the time off.”

Hughes, 29, scored 30 goals as a striker for the Jackson Cup Island champion Bays United in the premier division of Vancouver Island Soccer League this season. The converted midfielder has kept the striker role with the Highlanders this season, and though it’s a lot harder to score in the PDL, managed eight goals in 13 games.

That’s a dangerous threat behind the genius striking of Brett Levis, the Highlanders’ scoring sensation from Saskatoon, who potted 16 goals in 16 regular season games, plus three in the playoffs.

It was Levis who propelled the Highlanders with a 3-2 win over the Ventura County Fusion 3-2 on Friday in the Western Conference semifinal. Levis tied it 2-2 in the 60th minute, then scored the winning goal six minutes into extra time.

On Saturday Levis scored the only goal as the Highlanders shutout the Portland Timbers U-23s 1-0 to win the Western Conference.

“Levis scored three of our four goals and drew a penalty kick for the only other goal (scored by Riley O’Neil). Obviously he’s been key to our success this year,” Hughes said.

“But it’s also the effect of having coach Steve Simonson. A lot of the players who are on the Highlanders now are from his (Highlanders) development team and grew up with Simonson’s system. He’s been training some of these guys since they were 14.”

Impressing this year from that local pipeline are Lakehill Soccer Association youth products Josh Heard, 18, and Tarnvir Bhandal, 18, at midfield, and Gorge FC youth player Andrew Ravenhill, 23, on defence.

“They know how (Simonson) likes to play. But if team’s are catching on to our style, he’s not just stuck on that one style, that’s been important,” Hughes said.

Recovering from injury, Hughes managed 45 minutes against the Timbers on Saturday and will most likely see playing time on Friday, especially if the Highlanders fall behind, but might not start the game. With 57 goals in 61 regular season PDL games, as well as being named an NCAA Div. 1 All American in 2005, Hughes’ balance of skill and experience is integral as the Highlanders look to make it through to the final. If the Highlanders advance the final is 5:30 p.m. PST on Monday.

sports@vicnews.com