AUS women’s soccer returns with a tight race among the top teams

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HALIFAX, NS – Today, Sept. 10, the StFX X-Women and UPEI Panthers have the honour of playing the first regular season AUS game in any sport in 18 months. 

There’s plenty to think about in this matchup, too. StFX had an undefeated season in 2019, after posting a 7-0-5 (win-loss-draw) record. It took sixth-place MUN penalty kicks to upset the X-Women, who finished a mere two points behind the eventual champs from CBU.

UPEI, you can tell, is itching to get the show on the road. They finished a distant eight points out of a playoff berth in 2019, but its fortunes seem to lie in what the Panthers have put together since then. Take a look at some of their exhibition games over the past week: they’ve already beat UNB and, you guessed it, StFX in convincing fashion.

I don’t want to end up drawing too much from just the first game. Each team will play 12, as per a normal year. The six best finishers after their 12 games will book their ticket to Sydney, N.S. for the AUS championships. The best two (or three) teams there book their ticket to…Sydney again, as CBU hosts the U SPORTS championships later on in the month.

So basically, no schedule or structural changes have happened, making for a similar year to 2019. Except it isn’t. The most normal-as-possible return is a breath of fresh air, but the two years of roster turnover will have unpredictable impacts on teams and likely results. If you haven’t yet, don’t look now at some interesting exhibition game scores early this month.

But that will be the same with every sport. Everyone will have to adapt to this uncharted territory, with AUS soccer teams the first to do so. The women’s division, in particular, will make an interesting season of it. 

*Note: this preview was completed with the best available info to 49 Sports with some projections made based on the most recently available rosters for every team. Some details here could change if any rosters released in the coming days change beyond expectation.*

Acadia Axemen

Thunderbirds edge Axewomen 1-0 with goal in the 76th minute

The Axewomen, under the defensive-minded game plan from 2018 coach of the year Amit Batra, almost smothered their way to an AUS championship in 2019, jumping to a 2-1 lead at the half in the final against CBU. Then Ally Rowe happened. If it wasn’t for the CBU striker’s 61’ and 63’ tallies, it could have been a different story. Instead, the best defensive team in 2019, with only five goals surrendered in the regular season, will look to make 2021 the season they win their first title since 1996. 

Key to taking Acadia back to the top will be Grace Longley, second on the team for goals and points in 2019 behind the graduated Jenna Boudreau. The latter’s departure will require the likes of players such as Jayden Boudreau and Madicynn Harnish to shoulder offensive duties, each scoring twice two years ago. 

Acadia’s premier fullback line will miss graduates Holly Buckler and Jaqueline Stevens, but have Meghan Johnston and Lauren Jodrey to lock down the netfront. Keeper Sarah Charnock is gone but her 2019 backup Spencer Skinner is likely to return in 2021. Acadia has an excellent mix of returning players and two years’ worth of rookies, which will ensure they compete for a title again this season.

Cape Breton Capers

Caper women’s soccer focused on capturing fourth consecutive AUS crown
(CBU Capers Athletics)

All is well in Cape Breton. The season cancellation in 2020 due to COVID-19 may have been inconvenient, but they’re coming off their third straight title. They captured major awards in 2019 through the graduated Ciera Disipio’s third MVP season and the returning Rowe’s rookie of the year honour. Rowe also led the conference with 14 goals, five of them game-winners. Plus, they get to host the U SPORTS championships this November. Even with the nearly two-year-long break, Ness Timmons’s squad remains the team to beat in 2021.

Along with Rowe, 2018 rookie of the year Erin Freeman and midfielder Amelia Carlini will be tasked with filling the net for the Sydney, N.S.-based Capers. Their offence scored ten more goals in 2019 than the next closest team, so slowing that down will be a big problem for opponents. 

They won’t be easy to score on either, with 2019 championship members Madison Lavers and Fatou Ndiaye returning at fullback. Keeper Haley Kardas will take the starting reigns after splitting matches with Rachel Yerxa two years ago. 

Like fellow AUS powerhouse Acadia, the defending champs have a ton of returnees at each position and, with first-years to step up throughout the season, will make life miserable for conference opponents yet again.

Dalhousie Tigers

2021 Women’s Soccer Season Preview
(Dalhousie Tigers)

Dal and rivals UNB were neck-and-neck throughout 2019, finishing one point apart from each other in the regular season. But the Reds got the upper hand in their quarterfinal match with a three-goal second half that sealed the Tigers’ fate. 

Even with some key players moved on, the core and youth of head coach Cindy Tye’s troops have earned the respect of the conference’s coaches. The black and gold garnered the most first-place votes, with four out of ten, in the AUS women’s soccer preseason poll. If the Tigers indeed take the next step this season from a 6-3-3 (win-loss-draw) 2019, a three or four-horse race at the top of the AUS awaits.

The team’s leading 2019 scorers Maya Venkataraman, Catherine Guevin-Nicoloff and Rachelle Lalande have all graduated. Dal’s scoring punch will come from returnees like Riley Donovan and Zoe Brown, plus rookies like midfielder Inari Moore. 

All of their fullbacks will be making their Tigers debuts, with transfer veterans Alexandra Doane and Holly Buckler the only two so far with U SPORTS experience. Annabel Gravely will take over the starting job in the box for Dal after posting four clean sheets in her 2019 rookie season. While the Tigers are transitioning at a couple of positions, the experience and leadership are there to lead the Halifax school deep into the playoffs, in pursuit of their first title since 2012.

Memorial Sea-Hawks

(Memorial Sea-Hawks Athletics)

The Sea-Hawks have been an interesting team. They haven’t dominated the AUS in a few years, but have made the playoffs consistently, appearing in a semifinal every year since 2014 (their last AUS title). Most recently, they upset StFX in the 2019 quarters as a six-seed. As a team that consistently achieves but has struggled to get over a hump the last few seasons, MUN has a winning culture and will expect of themselves nothing short of a championship in 2021.

The returns of MUN’s star midfielder and keeper will be their most significant. Nicole Torraville was a top-10 scorer in the AUS two years ago with eight points. She was also third in the conference in the shot category with 42. Sydney Walsh is the undisputed number one option in MUN’s net, having started each and every game since 2017. She’ll get the chance to do that once again.

Rounding out the Sea-Hawks core includes the likes of Holy O’Neill and Lauren Taylor, big players on 2019’s offence with six points apiece. MUN’s entire starting fullback line from two years ago is expected to return too, led by seniors Jamie King and Spencer Wilkins. Head coach Mike Powers’ squad’s identity will be much like 2019 with almost all of its key players returning for 2021. With most of these players having been together for three or four seasons now, it will be their collective teamwork and energy that will give them a unique edge.

Moncton Aigles-Bleues

(UdeM Athletics)

UdeM has had it hard over roughly the past decade. They’ve made the playoffs just once since 2012. That one time, in 2015, was when they automatically qualified as a host in a winless season. A 2-8-2 2019 campaign was better than their one-win season in 2018, but still left them nine points (at least three wins) out of a berth in the AUS championship weekend. 

The Aigles-Bleues had a roster of mostly first and second-year student-athletes in 2019, but are likely to lose key pieces like midfielder Natalie Fleming and striker Madeleine LeBlanc upfront. Zoe Brockbank showed offensive promise in her 2019 rookie campaign, as did fellow forward Tatyana Matulu. UdeM would also be overjoyed if Catherine Dupuis, a third-year striker two years ago, chooses to come back.

Much of their fullback core like Genevieve Aube have graduated, with the status of others uncertain. But 2019 rookies Ariane Beauchemin and Megan Simon will have busy 2021 seasons. Chelsea Burnham is expected to return in the box after starting all of Moncton’s games in the most recent season. UdeM’s key to success in 2021 is, along with patience, taking their progress one win at a time. If coach Mehyar Zekaroui’s team can take care of toss-up games against clubs like, say, Mount A or SMU, they can pull ahead and maybe make noise in the playoff race.

Mount Allison Mounties

Nicole Doncaster
(Mount Allison Mounties Athletics)

Mount Allison, like UdeM, has also endured a rough few years, having finished at or near the AUS’s basement every year since their last playoff appearance in 2013. But 2019 wasn’t all bad. They were a fine defensive team, but scoring only twice all year spelled their doom. Not winning more than two games in a season since 2015 isn’t great either. But like many AUS rosters in 2021, they’re hoping the extra rookies from two years of recruiting will promise bluer skies for the team in the near future.

The Mounties, led by head coach Gene Oullette, will lose centrepiece fullback Erin Cecchetto and possibly midfielder Morgan Lundin, who was in her senior year in the off-year and whose status is unclear. But Mount A will have a healthy group of returns too, like midfielders Amanda Piltzmaker and Nicole Doncaster.

Even with Cecchetto gone, the defensive line should have another alright season, with Mackenzie Allen and Maddison Hill expected to return. Their keeper duo will look familiar too; Sophie Austin and Kaitlyn Strickland are likely to form the same group that split 2019’s starts. The Mounties aren’t at a point yet to contend for their first AUS titles, but how first-year players fit into the lineup and perform in the next year or two can say a lot about how Mount A will progress moving forward.

Saint Mary’s Huskies

SMU tops Moncton 2-1 in final home game
(SMU Huskies Athletics)

The Huskies find themselves in a tough spot. They’ve made the playoffs just once since 2012 and with the teams around them either improving or maintaining a lot of their strength from 2019, SMU will have an uphill battle in the conference. Only a few years ago they had a 6-5-1 season, with a number of players from that group still around. Coach Marisa Colzie and her group know they can achieve more than the two wins they posted in 2019 and will fight hard to do so.

At the same time, it will be a year of retooling, fielding a younger roster. Gone are longtime leaders Fiorella Morales and Itai Kuwodza, who were key pieces both offensively and defensively. Midfielders Anelise Karakostas and Hanna Dorey will be SMU’s new leaders up front after impressive sophomore seasons in 2019.

Half of SMU’s fullbacks will be rookies in 2021. They will look up to Genelle Morash and Molly McLeod, who can show them the ropes while playing in bigger roles this season. Grace Morrison was handed the lion’s share of starts in 2019 and will in all likelihood play most games this year. The Huskies are a young team that will need to use 2021 as a spring to bounce back up the AUS ladder. But SMU will need to take their progress one step at a time.

St. Francis-Xavier X-Women

(StFX Athletics)

StFX has been sniffing at the Capers for a long time. They’re the last team besides CBU to win the AUS, doing so in 2016. They’ve been back to the finals once since, losing to CBU in 2018. Last year, the third-ranked X-Women were shocked by MUN in the AUS quarterfinals, in a match that required penalty kicks. StFX certainly doesn’t want to keep that trend going, but 2019 coach of the year Graham Kennedy will have a competitive team at his disposal that can play with the Acadias and CBUs of the world.

StFX’s most significant returnee is 2019 AUS co-leading scorer Amanda Smith, who spent time with the San Antonio Athenians of the United Women’s Soccer League in the spring. The already-scary striker has just gotten scarier, and with midfielders Mercy Myles and Talia Morin alongside her, FX will give opposing keepers nightmares.

Megan Frost and Tehya Blake will be leaders for both the fullback core and the team. Alyssa Spridgeon is back in net for FX, after posting a bizarre six shutouts in seven starts in 2019. Despite last season, the X-Women have been a threat for the better part of the last decade in the AUS and they could be fielding perhaps their strongest team yet in 2021. 

UNB Reds

(UNB Reds Athletics)

UNB has been at the cusp of making a run for some time now, but hasn’t yet been able to solve teams they draw in the playoffs like StFx and Acadia, who they fell to in the 2019 semifinals. They’ve made it to the playoffs each year except one since their last final appearance in 2018 but are yet to make it over the hump. However, a 6-4-2 record and a win over Dal in the 2019 quarterfinals are positive steps and show they can contend high in the conference.

Danika Lefebvre, who had nine goals in 10 regular season games in 2019, has moved on. Striker Madison Goertz and midfielder Jesse Bellamy will handle larger offensive duties this season, having scored five and three points, respectively, in the latest season.

The Reds have lost starting fullbacks Cierra Thomas and Clarisse Ramirez, meaning Olivia Rowinski, Shawne Comeau and more will be looked on to step up. Brynn Nash, after playing every game for the Reds in 2019, will get to handle the starter’s ropes in net once again this year. UNB has maintained a solid leadership group to help head coach Jon Crossland guide the squad through this season and have the tools to put together something special. 

UPEI Panthers

SEASON PREVIEW: With renewed belief, Women’s Soccer Panthers look to snap playoff drought
(UPEI Athletics)

The Panthers were a win away from possibly getting a tiebreaker into the 2019 playoffs. But instead, they extended their playoff drought to nine seasons and their championship drought to 15. With another tough field of opponents to contend with in 2021, head coach Lewis Page will lean toward 2019’s breakout rookies and the larger first-year class this season to build a winner from the ground up.

That movement will be centred by forward Caitlyn McCloskey, who led the team in scoring as a rookie with five goals. Midfielder Sarah Eden will be one to watch too, second on the team with 13 shots in the last regular season. 

Fullback leaders Jennifer Balderston and Raine Easton have graduated but look for Sam Silliphant and Madi Fisher to get more action on the defensive line. In net, Julie Ann Reid is the favourite to take most of the starts, after splitting those starts with the graduated Amanda Stanyer in 2019. UPEI’s in a bit of a transitional period between graduating veterans and a ton of incoming players but if they’re unable to pull together a run this year, they have potential to make it sooner than later.

Regular Season Predictions:

  1. CBU
  2. StFX
  3. Acadia
  4. Dal
  5. MUN
  6. UPEI
  7. UNB
  8. SMU
  9. Mount A
  10. UdeM

Cover photo: Cape Breton Capers

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