When it comes to following university sports, Pictou County fans, more often than not, look to St. Francis Xavier University. To the X-Men and, yes, the X-Women.
Why not? The Antigonish campus is less than an hour to the east and, in this province, the blue and white have provided many, many thrills through the years, through the decades. In fact, I could say through the generations.
When I look back at my growing-up years in the county in the early 1950s, St. FX hockey was big. Very big. Those on-ice successes continued when I was at X in the mid-1950s, and they were still happening for years after that.
You probably know the details.
From 1950 to 1963, the X-Men won 14 consecutive Nova Scotia hockey championships. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that the provincial honours were discontinued right after 1963. Nobody could beat X. So the primary goal became the Maritime title – and the Xaverians captured that one 10 times in the 1950s (shared one year) and four more times in the 1960s. The most recent triumph for hockey was a national championship in 2004.
Men’s basketball became the big story on the campus when Steve Konchalski took over as head coach and X captured a Canadian title in 1993, then took back-to-back national crowns in 2000 and 2001. The well-known Coach K south of the border had a Canadian equivalent.
But there’s something else – maybe more important than all the winning, all the titles – that has happened on the St. FX campus in recent years. Something that’s happening on campuses across the country.
I’m talking about the impressive emergence of sports on the women’s side. It’s happening in several sports.
My own attention to X-Women activities began in a big way in the late 1990s – though that had a personal angle to it. It was in soccer.
Our younger son Graham was studying at X at the time, where he met Patti Hackett, who was captain of the soccer X-Women. A few years later, Patti became our daughter-in-law. So, while off course, I’ll mention that she is being honoured this weekend by Soccer Nova Scotia for her tremendous contributions to the sport in the Cole Harbour area.
With that tucked away, I come to the St. FX sport that, in the past few years, has caught everyone’s attention – women’s rugby.
Yes, women’s rugby. A side of that rugged sport I never heard of when I was going to school and university. A sport I never thought would become a factor, let alone a highly successful one.
But it’s happened.
It’s risen in a major manner – one that should not be overlooked. Of course I’m talking about the X-Women winning another Canadian university crown.
It’s not just a title – it’s the school’s fifth, adding to the triumphs previously recorded in 2006, 2010, 2012 and 2014. Oh how they love those even years!
Any university team winning that many national championships in just over a decade is significant news. What those young women have done is a marvellous achievement. No question about it.
For Pictonians who have followed women’s rugby at X, it must be a reminder of what the Pictou County Senior Rugby Team accomplished in its dominance of men’s rugby during the 1970s. That was a tremendous feat four decades ago.
Likewise, the X-Women’s ongoing victories are another signal that the sport has new life in our athletic community. During the five title years, the playing personnel have obviously changed. That’s a given in university sports.
But there has been one very noticeable constant – coach Mike Cavanagh, the man at the wheel of this interesting ride.
There have been very talented players helping to win the five titles, such as the three who were named to this year’s tournament all-star lineup – Joanna Alphonso, from Ajax, Ont.; Sabrina McDaid, of Scarborough, Ont., and Ellen Murphy, from little Augustine Cove in P.E.I.
Cavanagh, meanwhile, has been the head coach throughout what must be recognized as a dynasty.
It should be noted that he has made such an outstanding contribution to the university that, about three years ago, he received an honorary X-Ring. That in itself is a very unique honour.
At St. FX, the X-Ring is earned when you graduate, and it is cherished by alumni around the world.
It’s been said often that the X-Ring is right up there with the papal ring and Super Bowl ring as the most recognizable rings anywhere.
For this successful coach, however, the awards certainly haven’t ended there.
Cavanagh has been named top rugby coach in the Atlantic region almost a dozen times. As well, he has been selected coach-of-the-year nationally. No wonder. His clubs have been so dominant that they’ve collected 17 Atlantic championships on the way to those five national titles.
Still, he doesn’t receive as much attention as someone as well-known as Steve Konchalski, the men’s gifted basketball coach, but he has a very impressive background nonetheless.
Cavanagh, his profile tells us, played for rugby teams in New Zealand, Ireland and Canada, and he’s coached against clubs from New Zealand, Scotland and Wales.
It should also be noted that something like 50 female rugby players go to St. FX each year with the hope of playing on his team. Think about the significance of that.
His reputation and accomplishments have not only popularized women’s rugby in Antigonish but across the Atlantic conference.
He’d be the first to give all the credit for winning to his players. But don’t for a second overlook his value to the club. He’s definitely a huge asset.
A fact: hockey, football and basketball have brought a lot of attention and admiration to the Antigonish school through the decades.
Now, for sure, it’s time we add women’s rugby to the list.