“The little school that could”: Inside MacEwan’s championship journey, seven years in the making

Sydney, NS – At times this season and in past ones, it seemed the world didn’t want the MacEwan Griffins to win the U SPORTS women’s soccer national championship.

The narrative has been they’ve been in U SPORTS for less than a decade. They joined the most challenging conference in the country. After joining Canada West, they fell in the conference semifinal in only their second season, finishing fourth.

However, that’s where they finished three of the following four seasons, too, including falling to the Calgary Dinos in a penalty shootout, who made it to the national final in 2019. Hungry for a bounceback, they couldn’t do that in 2020 because of COVID-19.

They didn’t win the Canada West semifinal this year, falling to the UBC Thunderbirds. But by taking third place in the conference, they qualified for the big dance in Cape Breton.

They pulled off wins over the Queen’s Gaels and UBC; things were looking up for them.

The championship game was an entirely different animal. The Trinity Western Spartans dominated to open the game, but the Griffins fought back. Then late in extra time, tournament first-team all-star keeper Breanna Truscott suffered a scary injury following a collision with a Spartan also in pursuit of the ball.

“Even right now, it’s hard to talk about that. It was scary,” MacEwan defender and tournament MVP Samantha Gouveia said shortly after her team used a penalty shootout to seal the national title. “We knew she’d want us to keep pulling through. That’s exactly what we did in the last five minutes [of extra time] and penalty kicks. We did it for each other. Bianca [Castillo] stepped up in net, and it was a whole team effort.”

Castillo hadn’t played since Oct. 23, or almost seven full Griffins matches. All of a sudden, MacEwan’s fate in the gold medal game was resting on her shoulders.

“A whole bunch of things were going through my head. As soon as I saw Bre go down, I wanted to get that national championship for her,” Castillo said on being thrust into duty in the 120th minute, playing the last few moments of stoppage time and the all-important shootout. “[Truscott] worked so hard during the season, and we’ve had each other’s backs all season. There was a fluster of emotions going through me.”

Naturally, it took a second to adjust as she entered her first game action in nearly a month. She faced no shots in extra time. TrinWest striker Anna Dunn, the nation’s leading scorer, beat her on the first shot of the shootout.

Then out of the following four shots, she stopped two, allowed one and had the other miss the net.

Erin Van Dolder, Hannah Supina and Grace Mwasalla beat TWU keeper Hannah Miller on their respective chances, clinching the Gladys Bean Memorial Trophy for the MacEwan.

“When I made that first save, I was just pumped up with emotions,” Castillo said. “I told myself before the next shooters, ‘I can do this. I can do this.’ After the last save, I couldn’t feel my body. The adrenaline was so high that I thought I was dreaming.”

The seven-year plan

With Sunday’s win, MacEwan capped off a season where they lost just three times. Along with the UBC loss in the CanWest playoffs, they dropped two matches to provincial rivals Calgary. The Dinos fell in the conference quarterfinals in penalties to Saskatchewan; they were that close to a potential rematch later in the playoffs or even nationals.

In a way, Calgary’s absence had meaning. They’ve been MacEwan’s kryptonite since joining U SPORTS, especially in that oft-mentioned 2019 semifinal.

Coach Dean Cordeiro said that year was the fifth of his “five-year plan” to take the Griffins to a national title since they joined U SPORTS in 2014. The Dinos and COVID-19 delayed that timeline to seven years, the space between their CCAA and U SPORTS championships. With Sunday’s win, they became the first-ever program to win the national title at the collegiate and university levels.

“We had a plan, and we put that plan in place. It was five years. People looked at me and thought I was crazy,” Cordeiro, who grew up 15 minutes from the university, said. Their CCAA championship season in 2013 was his first year coaching the team. “It wasn’t an easy task. You saw three Canada West schools make the final four. Trinity [Western] and UBC have won multiple titles, and we’ve been closing that gap every year.

“We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for all the players that came before them. They put this program on the map and helped us become a top choice in Alberta and western Canada for attracting top players. We were heartbroken in 2019 [losing to Calgary]. We thought that was our year. After that, we talked and said, “This is how close we are. We’ve got to stay with it, and we’re going to get there.’”

Midfielder Raeghan McCarthy had that all-important penalty kick goal in the 37th minute of the final to tie the game at one. In what she has said was her last season, she cemented her name in program and U SPORTS nationals history.

“It feels amazing. To end off on this is such a good feeling,” the fourth year from Edmonton said. She was briefly interrupted by Cordeiro, who said he’s trying to “talk her back into playing one final year.”

“We’ve been working so hard for so long,” McCarthy said. “I think we should have been at nationals in some other years, but it feels good being here for the first time and winning.”

The national title for fifth-year Gouveia will be her U SPORTS swan song.

As the Griffins’ captains accepted the day’s big prizes, captain Samantha Gouveia (holding the trophy) could not wait to get her hands on the Gladys Bean Memorial Trophy. (Luke Dyment)

“I’m so proud of this team. I’m beyond speechless,” she said. “We worked so hard in the past four months to bring this team together. To think several years ago that we started from the bottom up, it attests to our heart and hustle we’ve put in this entire season. We wanted to paint U SPORTS with maroon for once, and we did that.”

Many pieces, one gold

The CanWest third-seeded Griffins had to go through the two higher-seeded teams from the conference to get the national title. Those came after facing OUA powerhouse Queen’s.

One of many impressive things in MacEwan’s title run was that each match had different individual performances of heroic proportions.

The Queen’s quarterfinal belonged to Abbey Wright. In an otherwise deadlocked game tied at one in the 81st, a flurry of touches led to the ball finding Wright in the right place at the right time. The semifinal’s hero was senior Meagan Lemoine, who scored the go-ahead goal in the 96th minute versus UBC.

Yet, it was the final that summed up the contributions of everyone. Trinity Western dominated the first 30 minutes, but the Griffins pushed back hard enough to force a TWU penalty inside the 18-yard box. McCarthy had the match’s turning point right at her feet. 

“I’ve taken penalty kicks earlier in the year, so I knew they may have had some film on me. I was kind of in my own world; I really wanted to score and get our momentum going,” she said, making no mistake burying the crucial kick.

Raeghan McCarthy gets swarmed by teammates after tying the championship final match on a penalty kick. (Jefferson Hagen)

It didn’t stop there. That was all the spark MacEwan needed, who controlled play through practically the rest of the half. As time was about to expire, Salma Kamel launched a shot off the bar, hitting TWU’s Miller on the way out and trickling back in. 2-1 Griffins at halftime.

“We got rattled a little bit halfway through the first half,” Spartans coach Graham Roxburgh said post-game on the momentum swings through the final. “We were disconnected and struggled some with our confidence. We got back into it into the second half. I couldn’t be more proud of the girls to fight through that adversity.”

TWU’s retention of momentum in the second half led them to more control in MacEwan’s end for about 20 minutes, with Kathryn Harvey scoring her second of the game on a nifty rush to tie it at two apiece. But the Griffins evened it out from there, fighting to outshoot TrinWest 12-6 in the match.

“MacEwan fought hard. They won a lot of 50-50 challenges,” TWU’s Elizabeth Hicks, a tournament all-star, said. “It’s tough to lose this one, but we’re going to take away so much more than the colour of the medal from this.”

Aside from the Griffins’ goal scorers, attackers like Van Dolder and Mwasalla played crucial roles in the attack. A rookie and tournament all-star, Mwasalla registered her second of two assists in the tournament Saturday. Gouveia was a rock at fullback, while fellow tournament all-stars and seniors Lemoine and Kaylin Hermanutz went out with bangs in their final games at MacEwan.

And we cannot forget about Truscott. She played her best game of the nationals in the final. Her five saves were the most she’s made in a match this tournament (and the second-most this season, after the seven stops she made in the UBC CanWest semi).

The saves were of both quality and quantity. She made a pair of highlight-reel ones versus UBC Saturday as well.

But the best news for Truscott and her team on Sunday was the news that she was alert and well post-match. In a tweet post-game, she sported her gold medal and a neck brace from her Cape Breton Regional Hospital bed. And, of course, the thumbs-up.

Perhaps the happiest person to have seen that tweet Sunday night was Cordeiro.

“The team broke down [when she got hurt]. We love Bre. That’s our teammate. She’s seriously injured, so how do you play on?” he said. “We said, ‘What would Bre want?’ Bre would want us to go win it. We were going to finish the job for Bre.”

They, in fact, finished the job.

“We knew it was going to be the team that wanted it a bit more. With their togetherness, they weren’t going to be denied,” Cordeiro added. “It was our turn and our time. The little school that could.”

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