HALIFAX, NS – Things around the Atlantic provinces are getting even more interesting as we approach the final month before U SPORTS’ holiday break.
We know the combatants of the first AUS final of the year: the age-old women’s rugby rivalry between the StFX X-Women and Acadia Axewomen, with Acadia on a mission to become the second non-StFX champion in AUS rugby history.
The conference cross-country championships also go this coming Saturday. StFX has run as the title favourites all year, but stronger results in the last meet from Dal have meant StFX is by no means a shoo-in to win. It all comes down to the final races in Moncton.
The final matches of regular season AUS soccer get underway Friday and Saturday. While two playoff berths remain up for grabs in the women’s division, three are available on the men’s side. Each competition will come down to the final whistles this weekend.
Football, meanwhile, is in its second-last week of regular season play. Acadia and SMU continue to fight for the final playoff berth, which could be finalized in the favour of the Axemen this weekend if they win or SMU loses.
Hockey, of course, will be served up hot with more wacky, wild results and the second AUS swimming meet goes at UNB this weekend.
And finally (deep breath), basketball and volleyball kick off regular seasons Friday evening.
Let’s count ‘em. Eight sports will be played this coming weekend, the busiest in the AUS calendar, nearly all of them with competitions of importance. Keep an eye on AUStv in the next few days, because there will be something on at almost all times.
Luke’s AUS soccer MVP candidates
As mentioned, we only have two full days of AUS soccer left before next weekend’s championships. Next week will be all about setting the stage for those games, so why don’t we check out some MVP candidates?
It isn’t easy to not just pick the top three scorers in the league, nor is it easy to fairly evaluate players on the non-scoring side with the limited statistics available at the university level. For instance, former CBU fullback Peter Schaale won AUS MVP in 2019. Although he rarely scored (hard to do at the position), his size, aggression and command of the game within feet of his own goal put him in a league of his own.
With that said, let’s take a look at my preliminary MVP ballots.
Kairo Coore (CBU)- Coore, in the league lead with goals with 13, has arguably been the most consistent player in the league this year. He’s scored in each of his last six matches and has backed it up with at least two shots in every game. CBU’s blown out a few teams this year, with the most recent example a 10-0 thrashing of Mount A last Saturday, but Coore seems to always take over when the close games are on the line. His three game-winning goals are tied for first in the conference.
Emmanuel Dolo (MUN)- In the rookie of the year race, Dolo and SMU’s Sean Freeman have stolen the show. Both have led their teams to success and (possibly for the Sea-Hawks) playoff berths. With Dolo, there’s more to his game than just all his goals from week one of the season. He’s been the heartbeat of the second-best offence in the AUS. He has more shots than anyone in the league but is also second in AUS assists. With 11 points more than his next closest teammate, MUN’s position in the playoff race would be much more uncertain without Dolo.
Josh Read (StFX)- Any of StFX’s big three on defence—Lewis Dye, Jack Kennedy and Read— have a claim for MVP consideration this season and will likely be named all-stars. But I’m going to give the slight edge to Read, the fifth-year anchor of the X-Men backline. Much like Coore, he’s been the most noticeable the closer the games have been and was the centrepiece of perhaps the top defensive team in the conference. There are an overwhelming number of similarities between Schaale’s 2019 season and Read’s 2021 campaign.
Annabel Gravely (Dal)- Three. That’s how many goals Gravely has allowed through 10 matches this season. Seven of those games were clean sheets; she hasn’t allowed more than a single goal in any game this year. Yes, the defensive effort from the entirety of the Tigers team has shone this season. But for the shots that did get through to Gravely, she’s almost always had. Her .921 save percentage is tops in the league by a solid margin. The only other keeper to crack the .900 threshold right now is CBU’s Haley Kardas.
Holly O’Neill (MUN)– O’Neil, by and far, has been the conference’s best player in the month of October. With five goals in MUN’s last four matches, she scored the game-winning goal in three of those instances. She has five total game-winners on the season, scoring the game’s biggest goal in all but three of the Sea-Hawks’ eight victories. As one of the conference’s highest-volume shooters, O’Neill’s been key to guiding Memorial to a semifinal berth in Cape Breton next weekend.
Amanda Piltzmaker (MTA)- Piltzmaker is the engine behind the Mounties 2021 resurgence in AUS women’s soccer. Not many expected the Mounties to be in this position and without Piltzmaker’s heroics, who knows if they would be. In their five-game win streak, she scored four of the game-winning goals. Three of those instances were in one-goal games. If the Mounties can hold off UNB this weekend and book their playoff tickets, Piltzmaker will get a huge boost in MVP voting.
WHKY: StFX duo off to dream start to season
The defending AUS champion StFX X-Women continue to battle for the top of the women’s hockey standings, fighting UNB, SMU and UPEI. The team has been coming on strong both offensively and defensively through the season’s first six games, but two players in particular have had interesting starts to the season.
Let’s start with conference’s leading scorer Lea MacLeod. She didn’t even need a goal yet this season to lead the scoring; she’s been doing it all through the art of the setup. She’s been trying to bury one as she’s third on the team in shots, but leading the AUS with 12 points isn’t too shabby either.
MacLeod has put up multiple-assist efforts in all but two games so far, including three instances of three or more helpers per game. The only game she didn’t land on the scoresheet was the X-Women’s win over UNB on Oct. 16. Already established as a centrepiece on the team after scoring 20 points in 2019-20 (including 10 assists, a total she’s already surpassed), it won’t be long until she’s scoring goals too.
On the defensive end, goalie Amaya Giraudier has had an interesting first three games. Nonetheless, she finds herself undefeated and tops in the conference by far in save percentage a month into the season. The rookie wasn’t busy in her season debut at all versus Mount Allison, facing just 12 shots in an 8-0 rout. Her next appearance against UNB was the exact opposite, standing on her head for 38 saves in a 3-2 win. She followed that up with a 25-save shutout over STU a week later.
Giraudier has played every other game so far in 2021-22, splitting starts with second-year stopper Jamie Johnson. But Giraudier has had the upper edge in the tandem this far, even as both goalies played equally challenging schedules. If the rotation stays put, Johnson will face the last-place Mounties Friday and Giraudier will duel the Huskies Saturday. If the first-year netminder puts up another impressive game, the coaching staff will have to consider giving her additional starts.
MHKY: Every game a must-watch in 21-22
Another week, another enthralling set of unpredictable outcomes in AUS men’s hockey.
I’m not sure if I can keep up. Let’s see if I can.
Two instances of three-on-three overtime? Check. The last-place team from 2019-20 almost beating the first-place team? Check. This year’s last-place team scoring three goals in two minutes to upset a surefire title contender? Check. U CUP contenders SMU and Acadia splitting their last two games? Check.
Note, that’s all in the last seven days.
To emphasize, the Moncton/StFX game last week was especially strange. It began with the X-Men scoring twice 10 seconds apart midway through the first period. They pummeled the Aigles Bleus left and right throughout the first two periods, on the shot clock and otherwise. Then, Moncton pulled a similar trick in the third. They buried three exactly 2:13 apart, two off the stick of second-year Samuel Guilbault. Game, set, match.
What do we take from all this craziness? The top six teams are separated by just six points, the entire league by nine. The league is insanely close and I wholeheartedly think every team is able to put together a run to the final. No one has shown this year that they are sitting outside or don’t at all have a chance. Everyone has demonstrated otherwise.
The perfect illustration of league parity for me is UNB and Dal last Saturday. The Reds, with two first-period goals, came out stronger. Yet, there was no quit on either side. Back and forth, the two sides went. It was as tug-of-war as hockey could possibly get. In the end, the favoured team won but just by one, a tight game by all metrics.
That’s much like the standings, isn’t it? Every team is only separated by a hair. Bad bounces, long shifts and questionable calls are usually what determine just the games. So far, those are influencing literally everything.
WRUG: Acadia and StFX prepare to go out with a bang
The Acadia Axewomen are one win away from their first-ever perfect season in AUS women’s rugby. They have the chance to do that against a team that went perfect in the four seasons before 2021.
The 2021 season in the AUS rugby circuit was a different one than we’ve seen lately. Acadia and UPEI finally got the upper hand on historically dominant StFX, giving us some of the most competitive matches in years. But the major constant was Acadia’s rise to the top of the league and their stranglehold on that position so far. They can cement that by taking down the X-Women once more Sunday.
The conference’s top scorers on both the run and the boot come head to head again. Acadia’s Emilie Merilainen has been on another planet in try-scoring this year, collecting 11 majors in six games. But StFX’s Hannah Ellis is a close second with eight, making this matchup in the backline one to watch. If defence dominates and the match is low-scoring, both sides will look to their kickers. Danielle Franada of the X-Women leads the conference in scoring, backed by 28 conversions. The Axewomen’s Sara Grant has 14 herself. If the game is as close as it looks, every kick is going to matter. Each team, though, has the best in the conference to do it.
While the rugby championships and the last of regular season soccer run this weekend, keep an eye on some of the biggest action elsewhere in the conference.
AUS cross country championships, Oct. 30, 12 p.m. (women), 1 p.m. (men)- Over the last month, the AUS race for cross country dominance has morphed back into the narrative we’re used to: StFX and Dal fighting it out. While the former cleaned up in the season’s earlier meets, improvements from Dal in Fredericton have set the stage for anything but an easy race in Moncton. But, with a big race from a couple of UNB runners on Saturday, the Reds could finally jump one (or both) of those teams after breathing down their necks for two of the season’s first three races.
Second-last weekend of football- We could know the playoff picture as soon as tomorrow afternoon. An Acadia win or a Saint Mary’s loss will seal a playoff berth for the Axemen, as they continue on their mission to defend their 2019 title. Acadia plays the second-place Mounties, a stiff challenge for their offence. But they came within one of beating Mount Allison in early September. SMU’s in a tougher spot, as they play the high-flying X-Men on the road in a must-win game. For StFX, they can clinch first in the conference and home field throughout the playoffs if they hold off the Huskies.
Basketball and volleyball begin- And of course, we’re in for a full slate of games for the two youngest seasons in the conference. The defending champion Dal Tigers spend the weekend in Cape Breton while title contenders StFX meet up with a revamped UNB team on the men’s side of the basketball. The doubleheaders run Friday and Saturday.
The UPEI women begin their title defence against Memorial at home Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The team chasing them, Acadia, will take part in a home-and-home with SMU on back-to-back nights beginning Friday.
In women’s volleyball, it’s shaping up to be a battle of Halifax between Dal’s recent dominance and SMU’s promising offseason and preseason. The Tigers host UNB twice this weekend as the Huskies make the long trip to St. John’s for a doubleheader at Memorial.