The Bubble #3: Goals, goals, goals in soccer, plus some big steps off the pitch this week in the AUS

HALIFAX, NS – Now that the AUS is running at full throttle, and hockey coming back next week plus basketball, swimming and volleyball later in October, it’s a bit funny in perspective looking at things now compared to last winter, during the brief exhibition season held between some Nova Scotia and New Brunswick school. But a good kind of funny.

After a few weeks of action in sports like hockey and basketball, and more on the way, a COVID-19 case spike in Nova Scotia unofficially “ended” the exhibition season. Some games happened after the spike was handled but not at the same level, it seemed.

Same with New Brunswick. Beginning exhibition play in early March, about a month later than its neighbour to the east, there wasn’t much time left between games and the beginning of exams in early April, a self-imposed deadline most schools set to wrap up play for the season.

Once you get a few games into any season it, for me anyway, feels like most athletes start to hit their groove and take their play up a notch. I noticed that in the final exhibition games last year for the teams that played the most. 

In AUS soccer, I’m starting to see that now too. With most teams halfway through their seasons by now, a lot of that has to do with the playoff race. But what we’re hoping for now is that the fourth wave doesn’t wreck too much havoc on the season or jeopardize the health of student-athletes, staff, fans and other officials down the stretch. 

The vaccine policy in the conference, the return of certain public health measures in New Brunswick and more will hopefully keep rising case numbers digestible. Plus, most sports right now are being held in a safer outdoor environment. Let’s hope that, along with the rest of U SPORTS, case numbers remain contained and we don’t risk having competitive seasons shut down part way through again.

Women’s soccer scoring race gets interesting

Riley Donovan’s (5 in white) four goals last weekend vaulted her into the midst of the women’s soccer scoring race, along with frontrunners Ally Rowe from CBU and Amanda Smith of StFX. (Chelsea Norris/Dal Tigers)

We’ve been treated to a wide share of excellent individual performances in AUS soccer so far this season. Emmanuel Dolo scored two hat tricks in Memorial’s first two games. UNB’s Louis-Charles Vaillancourt has won five of six starts this season. CBU’s Kairo Coore and Dal’s Riley Donovan added to that list last weekend, each scoring four times in blowout weekend wins.

The latter’s case is pretty interesting. Donovan’s four goals launched her to the top of the league in goals (five) and points (six). That one-game goal tally is enough to equate or pass three teams in the conference and her eight shots in the game puts her just one behind Moncton’s entire shot total through five games in 2021. 

All in all, Donovan’s big weekend set up a three-horse race for the AUS women’s goal-scoring title at the midway point, as she’s closely followed the Capers’ Ally Rowe and the X-Women’s Amanda Smith, each with four. Smith is alone in second behind Donovan in terms of point scoring with five. The best part of this? Most of the schedule’s last two weeks see Dal, CBU and StFX playing each other for the most part (except for a clash between the Capers and the X-Women this coming weekend). Not only will we have our eyes on who will take the regular season title but also the scoring title.

Katie Joyce scored a criticsal goal in Sunday’s game at StFX, sealing a 2-0 win. (The Gazette/MUN)

Also- On this week’s Undefeated Watch, StFX dropped their first match of the season Sunday to the MUN Sea-Hawks. Led by timely goals from Claire Langille midway through the first half and Katie Joyce early in the second, plus a 12-save shutout from Sydney Walsh, Memorial pulled off a huge win to cap off a four-game road trip. 

With that, MUN moves up into a tie for second place (with the X-Women) in the standings with 12 points, although StFX and 10-point Acadia each have a game in hand. Dal, who trails them by two points, has two games in hand. But that’s an important three points for the Sea-Hawks who face a pair of must-win games anaginst UNB at home this coming weekend.

Men’s soccer playoff race leveling out, slow week for middle-of-the-pack teams

As I discussed with the women last week, we’re starting to get a sense now of what the AUS playoff race could look like. UNB and StFX have established themselves as favourites to earn byes to the AUS semifinals in November. CBU is close too, but they remain closer to teams below them than above. Those teams below them? Memorial, Saint Mary’s and UPEI.

The UPEI Panthers. (UdeM Sports Communications)

The three were just about dead-even in terms of results, none able to come up with a win. SMU travelled to UPEI last Saturday, where they played to a 1-1 draw, while MUN stole a point from CBU in a match with no score the same afternoon. The Panthers and Sea-Hawks played on the road the next day, with UPEI losing to UNB 2-1 and MUN dropping a visit to StFX 3-1. 

Keveh Wornell of SMU chases the ball in a match earlier in September against Dal. (Mona Ghiz/SMU Huskies)

Today, the trio sit tied for fourth place with seven points each through five games, except for MUN who needed six. Dal and Moncton remain within shooting range with just three points between them (and with the Tigers having a game in hand), setting up some critical games this weekend. UPEI and SMU face must-win scenarios against Dal and Acadia, respectively, while Memorial has it tougher with UNB in town for back-to-back games. If there’s any time to separate from the pack, it’s now.

Also: I might have said it was a slow week for most teams, but there were a ton of goals scored. The 37 goals scored in nine matches played made up for over two-fifths of the 89 scored all season, easily the most fun weekend for fans of scoring. With lots of three and four-goal games, CBU’s 5-0 win over Acadia and UNB’s 5-0 triumph over Mount A went the extra mile. Unfortunately for the Axemen, they came out on bottom of another high-scoring barnburner in a 6-4 loss to Moncton. Led by three goals from the Aigles-Bleus’ Georges Musitu, they overcame a balanced Acadia attack and 14 shots on goal against to seal the road win. Along with their draw the following day at Dal, Moncton put together a four-point weekend to stay alive in the AUS playoff race.

Highlights in week two football

Saturday was a great day on the gridiron. One game had most of its action in one half, the second game with the other half being its most eventful.

Cole Estabrooks (top). (Peter Oleskevich/PJO Photography)

All 43 points in Acadia’s home opener versus Saint Mary’s came in the first half, 35 of those in the second quarter. 12 of those points are thanks to Acadia running back Cole Estabrooks. With two touchdowns, one of them a 46-yard run, Estabrooks’ 138-yard game on the rush made him the star of the show at Raymond Field last week. After contending in multiple seasons with former MVP Dale Wright for the running back job at Acadia, Estabrooks finally has his shot as the number-one guy. Even as the backup in 2019, he rushed for 403 yards, more than all but five players in the AUS. Almost at 200 yards in 2021, he’s in a strong position to beat that and perhaps top the conference too.

Owen O’Neal (centre) runs with the football between teammates Lucas Cormier (left) and Terrell Connell. O’Neal came up with arguably the game’s biggest play Saturday, intercepting a Bishop’s pass attempt on the Gaiters’ final drive. (Paul D. Lynch)

Mount Allison didn’t give Estabrooks and the Axemen offence much to work with in week one. In the other game last Saturday, they didn’t give Bishop’s much either in the Gaiters’ first game of 2021. Not even a touchdown. Although it was a fun game, it wasn’t the prettiest: nine turnovers, including three interceptions apiece, didn’t make either of the offences look very steady, if you couldn’t tell already by the score. As good as the Mounties defence was, Bishop’s held Mount Allison’s total offence to fewer than 100 yards. But at the end, what mattered was Adam Shambemiradam’s touchdown with 90 seconds left in the game. Timely interceptions, like Dallas Cook’s before the Mount A touchdown drive and Owen O’Neal’s two plays after the score, sealed a back-and-forth and low-scoring Mounties win.

Briefs from around the conference

StFX’s Katherine Culligan takes a handoff from teammate Claudia Fulton in their 38-31 loss to Acadia last weekend. (Sydney Haws/StFX Athletics)

-Acadia alone at top of AUS rugby- In a highly-anticipated match Sept. 25, the Acadia Axewomen and StFX X-Women didn’t disappoint. After a very, very high-scoring first half with four tries in the final five minutes, Acadia held off the hosts for a 38-31 win (the very same score UPEI beat X by two weeks prior). With two tries, Emilie Merilainen further strengthened her case for MVP as she now leads the conference with a whopping seven tries in three games. UPEI kept pace with Acadia after taking down SMU 32-0 on the same day, but they don’t get another shot at the conference leaders until Oct. 9 in Charlottetown.

-NS phase five- Sept. 15 was the original date Nova Scotia was slated to “reopen,” or lift public health measures like social distancing, contract tracing and masking. The province confirmed this week Oct. 4 is the new date, but with a “modified” phase that continues to mandate indoor masking, limit private gatherings and introduce vaccine passports for non-essential activities.

The five NS AUS schools are watching this development closely. A few of them told me they would be comfortable opening to full capacity if allowed, which will be the case next week. Contact tracing is also a factor into the programs’ next steps, but it sounds that will be modified since there will be no capacity caps on public events. Pending any last-minute developments like a couple of weeks ago, we’ll see some different-looking bleachers (with people in them!) during games next week.

Across the provincial border, New Brunswick reimplemented mandatory public health measures to curb case spikes, including masking and capacity limits in certain settings. For university sport, proof of vaccination will be required, as will masking as per AUS policy. Some places like UNB and St. Thomas have already been doing that. Notwithstanding any worsening of New Brunswick’s COVID situation, there won’t be much change to AUS play or spectator limits.

-New looks to AUS programs- The conference came out with two significant announcements in the last couple of days. The first was the establishment of a new conference-wide concussion policy that asks universities step up in terms of concussion treatment and monitoring. The AUS Student-Athlete Health and Safety Committee, led by doctors Sonja McVeigh and David Cudmore, developed the protocol for use by athletic care providers who work with AUS student-athletes and teams. Specifics, like whether we will see concussion spotters like those employed in pro leagues, aren’t quite clear yet but training to identify and treat concussions are at the forefront of this initiative.

Brady Paul, the new chair of the AUS Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Commitee (Brady Paul/CBC Nova Scotia)

In time for today’s first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the AUS Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee revealed former student-athlete Brady Paul as its new chair. Paul, who grew up in St. Mary’s First Nation in New Brunswick, played for Acadia and SMU’s football teams from 2011 to 2015, when he graduated from the latter. Now serving as the Indigenous Community and Cultural Liaison Coordinator for Nova Scotia Community College, his studies include Indigenous history and Atlantic Canadian studies. As we reflect today on the legacy of Canada’s residential school system and honour its victims, survivors and families, I am excited for Paul and the AUS as they partner to help better empower and support marginalized student-athletes and others in sport. 

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