A historic upset, a breakout rookie and more: The Bubble AUS column #1

HALIFAX, NS – Yeah, that is a COVID-19 reference in the title. 

It’s something that isn’t going to go away for a while yet it seems, if at all. But don’t look away yet⎼I promise this isn’t a rant about the many, many things we’ve seen and experienced since March 2020.

In fact, my new weekly-ish AUS column⎼The Bubble⎼gets its name from two main ideas. Firstly, we all remember the “Atlantic travel bubble” between the four provinces in question earlier in the pandemic. It was one of the few success stories in the pandemic, but it did set apart the provinces, AUS included, from the rest of Canada.

That leads into my second idea: the AUS itself is reasonably separated from the rest of U SPORTS. Canada is a vast, spacious country and there are plenty of gaps between universities and conferences: I don’t think anyone in U SPORTS’ “isolated schools” category beats Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University and its Thunderwolves. But the six-hour hike between UNB (the westernmost AUS school) and Quebec City’s Universite Laval is a stat that shows how the conference, geographically anyway, is in its own “bubble” anyway.

So, as we finally have the ball rolling on the 2021-22 AUS season, this will be my base for thoughts and developments across the conference. Within about seven or eight points, I’ll discuss stuff I noticed over the week on the playing surface and anything big off of it. The mix this week will be loaded with on-pitch soccer and rugby action, as there’s no way we can overlook the long-anticipated return of university sports east of Edmundston. And boy, did the return ever live up to the hype. 

Let’s go. Welcome to edition one!

WRUG: Rugby Panthers stun StFX

St. FX left stunned after Panthers' historic win
(UPEI Panthers)

I mean, this is the hype we dream about living up to. I said in my rugby preview on Saturday to expect a much different season than the typical one, which usually sees StFX win, followed by Acadia, UPEI and SMU, in that order. The pandemic break had changed so much in and out of sport and I was sure it would’ve affected this too, for sure.

But I couldn’t believe my eyes following along with the UPEI/StFX game on Twitter while at the UNB/Dal soccer matches Saturday. 

UPEI jumped to a monster 26-0 lead at halftime over the 2018 national champs from StFX, but the trailing side battled back to make a game of it. They made extremely close to UPEI’s try zone in a 38-31 battle, but the Panthers shut them down. 

And there you have it, easily among the biggest AUS upsets in recent history.

Or was it? Well, of course it was, but we didn’t get a good look at the Panthers the same way we did at other teams before Saturday and couldn’t really form the best judgement yet.

We do know though they’ve had a busy off-year. Almost the entire team (with Prince Edward Islanders making up the roster’s majority) has been training together since September 2020 as a team, something unheard of in other places in the country with P.E.I.’s low case counts.

The ample time for training allowed UPEI to mesh under newly-named head coach James Voye’s system, promoted from assistant coach after several years with the program. He, much like the team’s senior players, waited a long time for a shot at teams like FX and focused in the offseason on what they needed to do against them. 

“I know St. FX’s style of play and they haven’t changed it,” Voye said following the final whistle Saturday. This says it all: he and the team had analyzed the life out of StFX and prepared accordingly over the break (on top of their efforts in past seasons). When the time came, make no mistake, the Panthers were ready.  

With UPEI’s win being their first over the X-Women since 2004, the 2021 season for Mike Cavanagh’s troops is already filled with the most adversity since the season after Acadia won the conference in 2015. It will be interesting to see their bounce-back in the short AUS rugby season and they begin that road hosting SMU this weekend. They’re heavily-favoured but, hey, they were at UPEI too. 

MSOC: The Weekend of Dolo

Shifting gears to men’s soccer, I think many of us penned in Memorial’s Emmanuel Dolo as a rookie to watch after he registered his second goal in MUN’s season opener against Mount Allison Saturday. That shifted in the matter of a day to “rookie of the year frontrunner.” (I know, I know, too early to say yet.)

In game one, he finished the hat trick. Then he went out and did the exact same thing the next day. With six goals, Dolo’s on pace for a ridiculous 36 this regular season. Odds are that probably isn’t happening but right now, his six tallies are four ahead of the next-closest player, UNB’s Grant Takacs. And there’s the list of the only AUS student-athletes with more than one goal this season.

With a history competing with provincial (played for Newfoundland and Labrador in the 2017 Canada Games), national (attended an under-15 Soccer Canada identification camp in 2015) and club (played with the Ottawa Fury FC youth academy) history, Dolo’s coming off a wild few years playing for Feildians teams, a St. John’s soccer club. 

This year, he led his team to the senior men’s provincial championship, on the back of an otherworldly 23 goals in 19 games. Naturally, that included two hat tricks. Even outside last weekend, Dolo’s demonstrated he’s got a scoring touch unlike almost anyone in the conference. If he continues to dazzle, the AUS men’s soccer landscape could change tremendously in MUN’s favour. 

More Men’s soccer notes

– Other undefeated teams-

Along with MUN, UNB, StFX and CBU round out the group of undefeated teams in AUS men’s soccer after one weekend. Worth noting too that none of the eight games this weekend resulted in a draw, so all these teams are coming off big opening weekend wins. 

UNB and StFX, like the Sea-Hawks, put together perfect records through two games each on opening weekend. The Reds took on the tougher schedule featuring a two-game road trip to Nova Scotia, but emerged from it without a goal conceded. They kicked off Saturday at Dal, a team with whom they’re constantly neck-and-neck in both standings and pre-season comparison. They rolled out of there on the strength of a masterful, defensively focused 1-0 win. 

Next, they had an Acadia team who put together a strong, promising preseason. But the Reds didn’t look back after their first goal just over 20 minutes in, holding the Axemen to a single shot on net in a 2-0 triumph. Takacs’ pair of goals at Acadia and Louis-Charles Vaillancourt’s two clean sheets are some of the highlights that helped get UNB off to a hot start. 

StFX had a trickier time winning their first two matchups. After losing fullback Josh Read to a red card early in their first game, UPEI took it to the short-handed X-Men, outshooting them 22-13. But despite that, StFX maintained a 2-0 lead from early in the second half onward, with UPEI unable to bury one until nearly full-time.

Two days later, StFX was all over SMU in a 2-1 win, with Read’s still absent. Jack Kennedy, Lewis Dye and the rest of the fullback line were critical in stepping up when the team needed it in these games, demonstrating the X-Men’s sparingly-mentioned secret weapon. Some say these scores are underwhelming for an AUS title favourite, I say they’re as dangerous as ever. 

-Huskies trip to Cape Breton and StFX-

The Capers played only once this weekend, squeezing by SMU 2-1 in a rematch of their 2019 AUS semifinal. CBU dominated the first half but trailed 1-0 at the break despite dominating with 13 shots and all 12 of the half’s corner kicks. 

Despite CBU’s comeback, the Huskies put on an inspiring defensive performance, led by keeper Jensen Brown’s 11 saves, to put a scare into the defending champs. They also kept StFX, another AUS powerhouse, within a one-goal margin. SMU has had an up and down past few years and doesn’t get the love other top-five AUS teams like UNB and Dal do. 

In 2019, they kept up with teams in their pay grade, beating Memorial twice and, although losing twice to Dal, beating them in the quarterfinals. Those are steps to build off of and something the team’s certainly thought about a lot in the off-year. They’re still showing time and time again they can hang around with the AUS’s best.

WSOC: CBU gives warning to rest of conference, country

Capers open AUS women’s soccer regular season with 7-2 victory over Huskies
(Cape Breton Capers Athletics)

Another “wow” score⎼ as I like to call them⎼much like UPEI’s early lead in the StFX rugby game, was watching the Capers jump to a 5-0 lead 33 minutes into their match against SMU on their way to a 7-2 thumping in women’s soccer action Saturday. 

With the nine-goal match the highest-scoring in the conference last weekend, other teams were already dreading having to face CBU’s deadly offence, led by Ally Rowe, Victoria Miller and Rebecca Lambke. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they were the first to experience that first-hand. 

The blowout featured three CBU goals before the match was 15 minutes old. After a Lambke goal in the 14th minute, the Capers immediately took back the ball after the ensuing kickoff and spared no time rushing it back toward SMU’s net. Ally Rowe soon buried her first of two goals on the afternoon, exactly 104 seconds after Lambke’s shot crossed the goal line.

Like with many things we’re refreshing on with the AUS back for the first time in two years, one thing that can’t be over-emphasized is how cutthroat CBU plays not only in the offensive third, but up and down the pitch. They do not and will not waste any time, with or without the ball. In that goal just described, they literally forced the ball from SMU, then ran down to the other end and scored.

More women’s soccer notes

Perfect record roundup-

Out of the six winning teams on opening weekend, four (MUN, StFX, Dal and CBU) maintained undefeated records. CBU and Dal played just one game each. I might be biased since I attended this match in-person Saturday, but Dal is living up to the preseason AUS coaches’ poll that had them with the most first-place votes to win the AUS, even over CBU and StFX. The Tigers were all over UNB, a very good team themselves, on Saturday. The defence and ball possession and control they demonstrated on the weekend was the team’s argument that the poll’s voters made no mistake. 

StFX is looking very good too early on. UPEI gave them all they could handle in Charlottetown Friday but the X-Women found an extra gear in the last few minutes, with Amanda Smith scoring her second of the match in the 87th minute to seal the 2-1 win. In their home opener two days later, StFX took down SMU with relative ease, running up the score late in a 5-1 victory. With the X-Women running on all cylinders, its too bad we have to wait until October before they meet up with CBU or Dal. 

Good games for both sides on The Rock- Let’s not forget MUN, who are tied with StFX for the conference lead on the strength of 2-1 and 2-0 wins over Mount Allison. In 180 minutes of action, the Sea-Hawks proved the most solid throughout, controlling most of the play and shots and preventing the Mounties from having many (if not any) opportunities.

Despite that, Mount A should be happy with their weekend. With their recent history plagued with playoff misses and underperforming teams, they held their own against a competitive, offensively potent MUN team who had the fifth-best goal differential in the AUS in 2019. 

Although the offence still needs work, Mount A held MUN to just 12 shots on goal in two games, so they did a fine job keeping the Sea-Hawks’ dangerous opportunities at bay. If you factor in the lengthy trip from Sackville, N.B. to the eastern tip of Newfoundland too, there’s bound to be some effect on the travelling team. That goes for anyone making the journey there from the Maritime provinces. Although Mount A didn’t put up the most glamorous numbers, leaving St. John’s with a -3 goal differential is a positive step as they prepare to face Acadia this weekend.

EXTRA: Nova Scotia Phase 5 

On a final note this week, certain plans regarding spectators at events and other measures were set for a number of Nova Scotia’s AUS schools with the anticipated launch of phase five of the province’s reopening plan on Wednesday. The phase will see the province’s mandatory mask mandate lift and physical distancing, contract tracing and gathering measures relaxed. The Dal Tigers, for one, said they will open events to full capacity once phase five happens. 

That will now have to wait, as Nova Scotia said Tuesday it would wait until Oct. 4 to move phases. The sudden announcement comes amid a rise in local case numbers in pockets of unvaccinated individuals.

This change lines up with the province’s plan to require proof of vaccination for non-essential activities beginning the same day as the new phase five target. Sporting events are almost a sure thing to be deemed non-essential for this plan’s purposes. It’s more likely than not then that attending AUS games will require proof of vaccination. But that isn’t confirmed; those exact details (including how other schools will respond to spectators as reopening carries on) will come out in the coming weeks.

The most disappointed parties from this postponement will be teams and fans in AUS football, which has every school in the league typically drawing over 1,000 fans to the gridiron per game. One school said it hoped to have phase five take place on Sept. 15 uninterrupted with the football openers days later, as that would ensure a special home opener with a packed stadium. For now, however, cohorts of 250 people will remain the gathering limit at the games. 

But no matter the crowd size, sports are back and they have not disappointed. Soon enough, more fun stuff like crowds will be back too.

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