2021, the first season back from the COVID-19 off-year, was a departure from past years when the StFX X-Women would steamroll through teams uncontested. Mind you, StFX did end up winning yet again, their 22nd title in 23 seasons dating back to the division’s inauguration. In the past 10 years, StFX made it routine to roll through the regular season with a 6-0 record and snag the final match on top.
The other clubs, namely the Acadia Axewomen and UPEI Panthers, had other ideas. The latter took down X in the year’s first match, a massive upset as UPEI has always been closer to the bottom of the AUS than the top. Then, after beating X in both regular season matchups, it was Acadia establishing themselves as title favourites after going 6-0 themselves. But X emerged again, dominating the final in Wolfville to send yet another banner back to Antigonish.
StFX and Acadia will undoubtedly be very good again. The Panthers aren’t a team to sleep on either, who has a well-established reputation for playing the full 80 minutes against the league’s titans. The SMU Huskies haven’t been fortunate result-wise as of late. But to their relief, the surprise and change of routine that 2021 brought can open the floodgates of chaos even more this fall.
There’s much to be said about the defending regular season champions. The only other team to ever win the conference (in 2015), Acadia has always been right there with X, only to fall in the final. They did earn national tournament berths from those results. The Axewomen, however, got a taste in 2021 of what it’s like to be “the team to beat” as they, not StFX, went 6-0 to start the season. Season dominance? Check. The next challenge for coach Matthew Durant’s squad is to win the marathon, not just the sprint, and beat the X-Women at the long game for the AUS title.
Acadia’s biggest challenge is overcoming the loss of 2021 seniors and all-stars Laura Pfleiderer, Taryn MacLachlan and Emilie Merilainen. The latter was the highest-scoring non-kicker in the AUS in 2021, leading the league with 11 tries. With the above trio of forwards gone, the centrepieces of Acadia will be in the backline. That features centre Sara Grant, the 2021 AUS rookie of the year, and winger Grace Pinch. Grant brings a boot, as she was second in try converts to X’s Danielle Franada last season. Experience forward Kenzie Cecchetto returns in the flanker and number eight positions, while the scrum-half/fly-half connection of Juliette Matsukubo and Katya Dondi is a significant plus.
Saint Mary’s Huskies
With Acadia and X slugging it out at the top of the league, plus UPEI’s breakthrough season, there was simply no room for a youthful SMU team to make an impact in 2021. For them, that continues a trend covering most of their recent history in the conference: if X and Acadia win, the Huskies are stuck losing. SMU hasn’t won a game since the AUS transitioned to a four-team league after the St. Thomas Tommies left. That was almost 10 seasons ago, in 2013. It won’t be any easier for interim head coach Janice Cougle’s team to break the almost decade-long skid in 2022. But if the Huskies need any motivation to win a match this year, that’s it.
A youthful squad, some veterans leading the way include forwards Mikayla Brown and fifth-year AUS all-star Quennel Lumbamba. Lumbamba was one of two AUS all-stars for SMU in their winless 2021. The other, Elish Redshaw, led the team in scoring but has since graduated. Key forward Maggie MacPhee has also played her final game at SMU, now an assistant coach. To combat the other three teams’ experienced scrum-half/fly-half batteries, the Huskies have a pair of rookies—scrum-half Anna Van Wart and fly-half Xenia Theoharopoulos—expected to take the starting reigns in their AUS debuts. What will be a challenge at the positions this year will give the pair head starts over other AUS teams in the coming seasons.
Saint Francis Xavier X-Women
X showed why they’re the best in the AUS again in 2021. No undefeated season? No problem, as StFX rolled into Acadia on a mission to win their fifth consecutive title, doing so by putting up a convincing 42-21 final score. They’re a favourite, if not the favourite, again in 2022. Unsurprisingly. But it will be a transition year. Longtime stars Franada and Sarah Hoerig, two of their top three scorers, have departed. So has all-star prop Claudia Fulton. Coach Mike Cavanagh, in his 24 years coaching at X, has seen this before. And has kept winning. With a stellar returning cast, any X departures are just small bumps in the road for the U SPORTS title contenders.
X has near as many all-star returnees as they did departures. That list features fifth-year fly-half Hannah Ellis and scrum-half Madison Ross. Arguably the best 9-10 connection in the AUS, the two combined for 10 tries on their own in 2021. Only Acadia’s Merilainen registered more tries than Ellis’s eight last year. Prop Maddie Harroun returns after an impressive 2021, where she scored four tries. With fellow prop Annie McMullon, X’s forwards will be deadly. In the backs, Madison MacInnis showed a lot of promise at the centre position with Hoerig on her way out. Katherine Culligan is the frontrunner to play alongside MacInnis as the other centre, scoring two tries in 2021.
From the opening minutes of the 2021 season, UPEI knew they had a different season on their hands. Not many thought they would beat the powerhouse X-Women right out of the gate following the COVID season. But that established one thing: UPEI has what it takes to shoot for the AUS title. They’ve never won one, living in X and Acadia’s shadows for over 20 years. But with that win and two other matches where they gave Acadia good scares, coach James Voye has put together a roster in 2022 hungry to build on a season where they took the most steps in program history in a long time.
UPEI doesn’t have many players departing at all, with Kendal Brooks the biggest name moved on. Scrum-half and kicker Mia Fradhsam, flanker Brinten Comeau and winger MacKenzie Hale, three of UPEI’s top four scorers, are in the 2022 lineup. The forwards are shaping up to be strong, highlighted by prop Frances MacWilliam. A 2019 AUS all-star, the fifth-year returns to UPEI after a season off. Tessa Hood and AUS all-star Emily Duffy round out the Panthers’ front row. In the backs, Agustina Cohen, and rookie Jorja Cook will compete at fly-half, with fullback Charlotte Branchflower and centre Annika Wadlegger back as well.
Regular Season Standings Prediction
4. Saint Mary’s
Cover photo: Peter Oleskevich/Acadia Athletics