As we’ve seen this weekend, there are a ton of great teams from coast to coast in U SPORTS women’s soccer. But many, from coast-to-coast, are fast to mention how well Canada West teams, in particular, have played as of late, especially on the national stage.
They only showed more of that today. Once the dust, rain, wind and snow (yes, snow) settled at Cape Breton University Saturday, two Canada West teams were finals-bound for the second straight season.
It wasn’t easy, though. One semi was all-CanWest, with the other featuring an RSEQ squad. But both, no discussion needed, were instant classics. One matchup had a shocking number of goals, while the other had a single one with perfect timing for the winning side. Each one was equally pushed to the 120-minute extra time limit, so there certainly was no energy to spare by the game’s end.
On top of that, they must all retake the pitch early tomorrow for medal games. So if you thought today’s matchups featured desperate, gritty and courageous play, they are just getting started.
MacEwan’s all-timer semifinal victory historic but not blemish-free
Meagan Lemoine has been with the MacEwan Griffins for five seasons.
She’s been through almost every thick and thin the squad has experienced since joining U SPORTS in 2014. She was there when MacEwan finished fourth in two different final fours, including in 2019, with a loss to the Calgary Dinos. Later on, she had to wait through a year lost to COVID-19.
Now, in her final postseason with her longtime team, she put both the 2021 Griffins and her name into the history books, scoring the extra-time goal versus the UBC Thunderbirds that sent her team to their first-ever U SPORTS championship final.
“It was an incredible feeling. Coach told us at the beginning of the game to stand in front and hold our ground, and [the ball] would come,” Lemoine said. “When it did, it was so great.”
In the 96th minute, MacEwan’s corner kick landed near-perfectly in front of the UBC net. But Lemoine beat Thunderbirds keeper Emily Moore to the ball by a half-second, heading in the goal. That was all the match needed to be decided, as MacEwan exacted revenge on UBC after falling to them 2-0 in the CanWest semifinals earlier this month.
The Griffins dominated the first 45 minutes from start to finish. If it wasn’t for Emily Moore’s stops in the first 10 minutes, MacEwan could have jumped out to a two or more goal lead. Salma Kamel, Grace Mwasalla and Raegan McCarthy had no trouble fooling UBC’s fullbacks, who are struggling with injury troubles right now. All the conditions were right for MacEwan to get the start they needed. But, not using that time to convert even once was, to understate, a missed opportunity.
UBC pulled back even with the Griffins in terms of possession and opportunities, challenging Breanna Truscott in the net on many occasions. But, much like her counterpart across the field, she didn’t surrender an inch on any of the Thunderbird strikes. They weren’t devoid of chances in extra time either, but Truscott and her teammates proved too challenging of company in the end.
“We know we’re one of the top teams in the country. Today, we knew we needed a quick start. UBC doesn’t give you anything for free, so we needed to take it,” MacEwan coach Dean Cordeiro said. “We wanted to capitalize early. Unfortunately, it didn’t come, but we stayed the course. We had to weather the storm a little bit and did what we needed to do.”
Before the MacEwan goal, a Thunderbirds player was down on the pitch hurt. UBC coach Jesse Symons said his team kicked the ball out purposely so trainers could attend to the player.
But MacEwan kept the ball on the ensuing throw-in, opposite the generally-accepted sportsmanship-upon-injury custom where the team who intentionally kicked the ball out for injury reasons has it returned to them by the other side. The fateful corner kick came a phase later.
He said the play was “classless and very disappointing” to see unfold.
“It’s frustrating because I respect their staff, but that was completely offside today for me. It was immature and didn’t respect the game,” Symons said. “Other than that, full credit to our team. We were pushing in the second half and did things well in the first half after a shaky first few minutes. But that’s what it is.”
UBC’s Jessica Williams agreed the game got tough at many points. “I think it was less of a soccer game today, but more ping-pong-like and back and forth. There was a lot of aggressiveness and calls,” she said. “It was a hard game to go through. It was tough to move the ball down. But MacEwan brought a really good fight.”
The fight was good enough to dethrone the 2019 champs, as UBC won the last nationals. But the next U SPORTS titleholders will be from the same conference anyway as MacEwan draws the Trinity Western Spartans in the gold medal match. In what will be their first-ever gold medal match in their first-ever U SPORTS championship, MacEwan has already come a long way regardless of what Sunday’s results will be.
“I feel really grateful. We wouldn’t be able to do it without every single person on and off the pitch. It’s never a one-man job, and I don’t want anyone to ever think that,” Lemoine said. “MacEwan’s finally getting some love and getting the recognition we deserve. We’re making history one game at a time.”
TrinWest shows how they can win many different ways
Kathryn Harvey added to her U SPORTS championship legacy with the Trinity Western Spartans on Saturday.
In her four years, she’s scored three goals at nationals, all of them game-winners. Two came against Laval, including her highlight-reel marker 17 seconds into the second extra-time period, making it 3-2 Spartans. TrinWest would win 4-2, thanks in part to the continuing legend of Harvey against the Rouge-et-Or.
“To me, there’s no specific team or moment that sparks [those goals]. We’re all so into it, and we want to win so bad,” she said. “It just so happens I got that glory moment. But without my defenders and my midfielders grinding, that doesn’t happen.”
Harvey was, in fact, correct, as many, many players contributed to the Spartans’ victory. TWU had four different goal scorers, a four-save win from keeper Hannah Miller and saves from defenders Elizabeth Hicks and Jessica Vance in the final 10 minutes on their goal line. TrinWest coach Graham Roxburgh quickly gave a dean’s list of names that contributed to their semifinal win when asked how the team found the extra gear late.
“I don’t know, just ask Tilly James,” he said, signalling to his rookie fullback who played the full 120 minutes. “Credit to our girls because that was a tricky game. We faced adversity a lot this season, including some injuries. We knew [Laval] was going to stay in the ascendance, so I just said to them that we just need to get to overtime. If we could deal with the wind in the first overtime, we’ll have a chance.”
It wasn’t as easy as it sounds to get to overtime in that match. The first 75 minutes saw fewer than average offensive chances on each side, as both teams battled wind, rain and periods of snow.
It took one wide-open chance to get the scoring parade going when Holland Stiel set up Anna Dunn for a gimmie 1-0 goal. Six minutes later, Laval’s Mathilde Rousseau stripped TWU of the ball and proceeded to power through two Spartans fullbacks and chip the ball by Miller into the net. In the 85th, Rousseau pulled another dangle out of her sleeve before launching a rocket into the top corner of the TWU net.
With the Spartans’ backs against the wall, Grace Van den brink was in the right place at the right time in the 88thg to send the game to extras, on what developed from an innocent-looking chip from (guess who) her teammate James to keep the ball in play seconds before. From there, TrinWest fought it out until their goals from Harvey and Stiel late in extra time.
“In the first half of overtime, it was anybody’s game. When they scored early in the second half, it hit us hard, and some fatigue caught us,” Laval coach David Desloges said through translator Rachel Collard, an assistant coach. “We had some injuries and everything, so we lacked resources at the end. That made a difference.”
As the driving force behind her team’s late comeback, Rousseau said she and the team believed, right until the end, they could put up a battle. “We were tired. We were in such a good place at the end of the game, but their goal in the last minute just broke us down,” she said. “From that, they started extra time in a better mentality than us. The team who wanted it more won.”
As a six-goal game, this one stands out as an instant classic in all the opposite ways the first semifinal did. Both matches were wars of attrition in the unpredictable Sydney, N.S weather, but this one featured five more goals than the MacEwan and UBC game. As the Spartans prepare to face a conference opponent in the national final, they will have to prepare for another war of this nature that will kick off in less than 24 hours.
TWU showed today; however, they’re perfectly fine winning whenever, wherever and however they like.
“It hurt us all that we were down late. We weren’t down a lot this season. But we knew and trusted each other that we could come back and we could win,” Harvey said. “It took that look into each other’s eyes to know everyone was going to put every last ounce of effort they could to get that ball into the back of their net.”
COVER PHOTO: Vaughan Merchant/U SPORTS