HALIFAX, NS – Last week was a significant one in the AUS, with the highlight being the conference soccer championships. Historically successful teams like the men’s CBU Capers and women’s Acadia Axewomen captured their respective division titles.
Also, the men’s SMU Huskies came alive on championship weekend after an impressive season on their end, securing a berth with CBU in the U SPORTS men’s soccer championships next week at Carleton. The women’s Capers host the other soccer championships next week, filling out the other AUS berth alongside Acadia. Be sure to check out my notes from last weekend’s action here.
In the meantime, all forms of action were underway elsewhere in the conference. Basketball was busy, as noted by Thomas Scott, and so was hockey and volleyball action. Also, the AUS football playoff bracket is set. Let’s dive in!
Men’s hockey Tigers in third place
As of Nov. 10, who predicted the Dal Tigers would be behind only UNB and StFX in the standings one-third of the way into the season?
The historically challenged franchise, a playoff team just twice in the last two decades, was a question mark early this season. They invested many of their chips into its future core with many incoming players, so it’s certainly not the same team as two years before. But a winless preseason against bona fide contenders UNB, StFX and Acadia raised concerns that the Tigers weren’t yet ready to compete.
Maybe we won’t really be sure for a few more games or a few more months. Dal has played well enough though to push around every team in the league so far and grab a favourable spot in the standings. They beat U CUP hosts Acadia once, Saint Mary’s twice and came within a goal of beating UNB, with a 2-1 loss on Oct. 23.
Last week featured wins over the Axemen and Huskies, which snapped a three-game losing skid that saw two losses to the Reds.
Dal’s steady start out of the gate has been led by an offensive renaissance. Besides only StFX who has played one more game than Dal, the Tigers have scored the most goals in the AUS. Leading the way in scoring is Derek Gentile, who’s tied for the lead league in goals (10) and second in points (16) at the time of writing. Frequent linemates Barret Kirwin (11 points) and Chandler Yakimowicz (nine points) have been great to begin the season as well.
The question, then, is how long Dal can keep their rejuvenation going as they get deeper into the regular season schedule. Out of their eight games remaining before the holiday break, they play UNB, StFX, Acadia and SMU a combined five times. In all likelihood, they will eventually surpass the eight wins they captured in 2019-20. Now, they aim to take it a step further and throw some more punches at the AUS’s heavyweights.
Also: Rookie dominance of scoring race
Right now, the top five players in the scoring race and 11 of the top 13 scorers are first-year student-athletes. It’s an absolutely unprecedented share of scoring from the younger end of things. But two things, the distribution of players in the league and playing opportunities in the COVID season, seem to factor into this.
Nearly every team in the AUS has at least half of their roster made up of rookies. That total is led by StFX and SMU, who each have about 60 per cent of their active rosters in their first years. All teams combined (excluding Moncton due to lack of available info), rookies make up somewhere in the neighbourhood of 52 per cent of players in the league.
Also worth noting, many newcomers to the AUS this season are, for lack of better word, in better game shape than many veterans. Many of this year’s first years had the chance to play last year in other leagues, despite the virus.
A lot of AUS recruits come from the QMJHL’s Maritime division each year, which played almost a full schedule in 2020-21. Also, X-Men leading scorers Liam Hawel (Laval) and Matthew Struthers (Cleveland) are two players who partook in several AHL games in a shortened 2020-21 season. Other new faces in the league were with their university teams 2020-21, but some were rather fresh off a decent season of hockey heading into this one.
Demale the engine behind women’s Huskies dominance
The Saint Mary’s Huskies are the hottest team in AUS women’s hockey right now, having won five straight. In the time since being upset by Mount Allison on Oct. 22, they defeated StFX in a finals rematch, a surging UPEI team by four goals, as well as improved clubs from Moncton and Dalhousie.
In that win streak, veteran Shae Demale has three goals and seven points, allowing her to catapult to the top of the scoring race. Her 13 points, three more than her closest teammate, lead UPEI’s Jolena Gillard, StFX’s Lea MacLeod and Moncton’s Janie Poitras by one.
She’s been a key all-around player for the Huskies offence. She is second in AUS goals and fifth in assists. Four of those six helpers came on the power play, a massive strength in SMU’s offensive arsenal. Demale may move the puck to teammates a lot, but she’s not shy to let it rip at the net. Her 34 shots are good enough for sixth in the conference.
SMU has six games left before the break, looking to maintain their first-place standing in the conference. Their final three games see them match up against classic rivals StFX, UNB (who SMU is currently tied with) and UPEI. Just three of the Huskies’ eight wins have come scoring less than four goals. Against three of the better offensive teams in the conference, Demale and the Huskies will need to match them with some big efforts on the scoreboard.
Also: Defensive scoring race
An intriguing contest to watch in the early season has been the scoring race among blueliners. Led by UNB’s Jenna MacLean and Emma Giordano, the top four defenders in scoring have at least eight points in nine or ten games played.
MacLean’s point total of 10, the most of all defenders, is made up of all assists. She has registered at least one helper in all but two of UNB’s games this year, five of which have come in the last four games. Rookie teammate Giordano is tied for second on her team in goals with three, part of her nine points behind MacLean in AUS blueline scoring.
The leader among goals from defenders, however, is StFX’s Lauren Dabrowski. She’s scored five times in 10 games, second to forward Maggy Burbidge on the X-Women. Among AUS defenders, she’s tied for third in scoring with eight points, alongside St. Thomas’s Aislynn Byers. Byers’s point total is enough to lead her team in points.
With eight points and up, the four aforementioned defenders make up four of the league’s top sixteen in the overall scoring race right now. MacLean and Giordano are in the top 11. To make those numbers even more impressive, their teams make up three of the four best defensive teams in the league by goals against a third of the way into the season. These four defenders are not only chipping in scoring-wise but are leading the way by keeping pucks out of their own nets.
–Football Acadia, Bishop’s look to pull off the improbable- The odds are stacked against the Acadia Axemen and Bishop’s Gaiters heading into this weekend. Acadia faces StFX, the highest-scoring offence in the AUS by 99 (!) points and the eighth-ranked team nationally. Meanwhile, Bishop’s draws a Mount Allison team that boasts the best defence in the conference and has held the Gaiters to just nine points scored against them through two games against one another this season.
The matchups are fascinating because they played one another last week at the exact same venues they will play this coming Saturday. In that sense, the final week of the regular season was a preview in itself.
Losing just 13-7 to the X-Men last week, Acadia proved they could keep it close with the top team in the AUS. They had a heck of a game pushing around the StFX offence with 59 tackles and four sacks.
But this time, quarterback Silas Fagnan is expected to start after not playing last week. That will make a world of difference for the league’s top offence once their quarterback, who threw for 497 more yards than the next-closest passer (in one less game), takes the field in the AUS semis. The Axemen need to have everything come together for them in order to upset StFX, including more offence than their single score last week, plus an even bigger defensive effort to account for the returning Fagnan.
Other than a pair of rouge points last weekend, Bishop’s was held off the scoresheet by Mount Allison. The Gaiters carouseled between Mason McGrisken and Liam Kennedy behind the snap but neither were no match for the Mounties’ 61 tackles. If it weren’t for rushing performances from David Chaloux, Louis-Philippe Gregorie and Mathe Mitayango, the Bishop’s offensive effort would have been dead in the water.
It’s an interesting case study though given Mount A collected fewer first downs (19 compared to Bishop’s 20) and offensive yards (269 compared to 342) in the game. The difference is they’ve created opportunities to score and converted more often. Also, Bishop’s 14 penalties helped in setting up the Mounties’ better opportunities, so that must change Saturday if they want to further restrain Mount A’s lower-tier attack. If they do that, plus find a way to get a play or two around the Mounties defence, Bishop’s is capable of advancing to a second straight Loney Bowl.
–Volleyball, like other leagues, to be much closer standings-wise- We’re just two weekends into AUS women’s volleyball action, but we know it won’t be the same as other recent seasons. Especially in the upper half of the standings.
Saint Mary’s and Acadia stand as the only remaining undefeated teams. That’s right: Dal received its first loss of the campaign in game three versus Acadia by a score of three sets to one. The sets were close, with each team taking one set apiece by just two points. But on the strength of a ludicrous 25 kills off the arm of the Axewomen’s Taylor Collombin, the hosts put their offensive prowess on full display against the eight-time defending champs. While also beating Moncton handily in their first two matches, Acadia has shown they’re here to contend this year.
The same can be said for SMU, who are 5-0 to kick off 2021-22. They may have played lower teams in the standings like Moncton and Memorial, but they dropped just two sets in those wins. Those lost sets came on that trip to Newfoundland, one of which was at the end of three straight days of play. Their first major test of the season comes when Dal visits the Homburg Centre Saturday night. The Huskies beat their crosstown rivals in the preseason, so there’s a bit of a chip on each team’s shoulders heading in. Regardless, Saint Mary’s and Acadia seem to be closing the gap on the Tigers based on the small sample size collected so far. That will make the season a treat as the teams battle through a lengthy schedule into late February.
National Championships this week and next
Two AUS teams will compete in the U SPORTS women’s rugby championships this week: the StFX X-Women and Acadia Axewomen. The AUS champions StFX fell to the Ottawa Gee-Gees Wednesday afternoon 40-12 and will play the Guelph Gryphons in the fifth-place bracket beginning Friday. Acadia dropped their quarterfinal 46-12 to the Laval Rouge-et-Or later in the day and also move to the fifth-place playoffs. If they both win their next game, they will play one another for fifth place in the country.
Next week, the national soccer and cross country championships get underway. In men’s soccer, the AUS champion Cape Breton Capers and runners-up Saint Mary’s Huskies take off for Carleton in time for their Nov. 18 quarterfinal matches. CBU will host the women’s nationals, where they will take on Canada West champions the Trinity Western Spartans in their quarterfinal match. AUS champs Acadia open their tournament against the defending national victors the UBC Thunderbirds.
The U SPORTS cross country meet runs in Quebec’s Plains of Abraham, hosted by Laval, on Nov. 20. Names to watch include StFX rookie phenom Siona Chisholm and two-time AUS individual champion Andrew Peverill of SMU.