Dalhousie roaring into AUS Championships as stingy favourites

HALIFAX, NS. – Annabel Gravely was with the Dalhousie Tigers women’s soccer team last November when their season came to an exhausting, discouraging halt.

Playing against the Acadia Axewomen in the 2021 AUS championships, a 109th minute Jayden Boudreau goal was the difference in the 1-0 final. In what was an otherwise defensive war of attrition between the AUS’s two best defensive clubs, Dalhousie failed to register a shot in the extra time period to bow out of the playoffs. 

One year later, that was the Tigers’ most recent loss. Dalhousie is undefeated with an 8-0-4 record at the 2022’s regular season’s conclusion. The team sealed the second AUS championship seed, just behind the 10-2-0 Cape Breton Capers.

With that, Gravely couldn’t be bothered about what happened in Cape Breton.

“It hasn’t been on my mind,” the fourth-year goalkeeper and co-captain said of last year’s stinging defeat. “Last year was a completely different year and team that we are this year.”

Chloe Richardson battles for the ball in Dalhousie’s final regular season game, a 1-1 draw versus the UPEI Panthers. Richardson tied for first in team scoring with four points. (Dalhousie Athletics)

She’s right about that. Compared to the upper year-driven Dalhousie team that took the pitch last year, led by key seniors Riley Donovan, Holly Buckler and Sofia Nicolls, the black and gold have a young squad this season. Three of Dalhousie’s five leading scorers are in their first years on the team: strikers Kaitlyn Clarke and Elise Evans, plus fullback Paris Axam. 

The latter two were named second-team AUS all-stars this week. Defender Hannah Firstbrook and striker Megan Chiasson made the first team.

“We have a bigger group than normal,” said head coach Cindy Tye of her team’s development through the season with new faces. “All the kids bought into the process by stepping in and accepting roles. There’s been a lot of competition within the group.”

How’d the Tigers avoid the losses? 

Coming off her first AUS coach of the year honour in her seventh year at the Tigers’ helm, Tye’s staff faced challenges beyond filling in the gaps of departed seniors.

The injury bug hit in mid-September. Gravely fractured her finger at UNB on Sept. 17, missing five matches, while co-captain Morgan Leon hasn’t played since Sept. 23 versus the Memorial Sea-Hawks. 

“The depth really helped us this year,” Tye said.

It did. Dalhousie went undefeated, which is hard to understate when it shoots your team to contender status alongside CBU and Acadia. Not just any AUS team has been at that level recently.

“It doesn’t really change much for us,” said Gravely of Dalhousie’s jump to being a top team. “We know how strong we are. We know we’re an awesome team. But it doesn’t change our mentality going in.”

Annabel Gravely put up a .920 save percentage and five clean sheets in seven 2022 appearances. (Nick Pearce)

It’s impressive considering how the Tigers achieved the record they did. First, Dalhousie’s highest scorers finished 24th in AUS points.

Who finished ahead of Dalhousie’s top offensive guns this season in Axam and Richardson? Six players each from the Capers, Axewomen and StFX X-Women, plus two Saint Mary’s Huskies and a player each from MUN and UNB. 

But that debate all goes out the window looking at the defence. Who would have predicted a team would allow just three goals all season? Dalhousie finished well ahead of Acadia’s AUS second-best goals-against total of 10. The next closest teams in the country are the Ottawa Gee-Gees and the Montreal Carabins, each conceding just five in 2022.

Dalhousie did that without its star keeper for half of the season. Not only did rookie keeper Emily Toth step up in that time and allow one goal in five appearances, but the fullback talent for Dalhousie stole the spotlight. The backline allowed just over three shots per match to make it through to Gravely or Toth between the sticks. So along with a defence that keeps the ball out of harm’s way, the Tigers boast two keepers playing at the top of their games.

“I’ve never been on a team where I’ve just showed up and everything’s worked so seamlessly.”

– Paris Axam

“I’ve never been on a team where I’ve just showed up and everything’s worked so seamlessly,” Axam said. Emerging as an important defender for Dal as a rookie, the Ottawa native will take on a ton of expectations in her first championships.“I want to come home with an AUS championship…. but honestly, I’m just so happy for how far we’ve come. If we go in there and play our game, I’m hoping we come out with whatever result we deserve.”

It’s been almost exactly 10 years since Dalhousie’s last AUS championship, its second of two straight conference titles in 2011 and 2012. This could be the closest Dal’s been to a title since then, as the calendar flips to the postseason.

“We’ve been in the playoffs before. We lost a close one to Acadia last year. But the playoff experience was good for us,” Tye said. “I don’t think we see ourselves as a favourite, but we approach each game like we did for every league game.”

The Tigers’ unit-like approach is evident in their stellar defensive totals and wins. That has shown most of all, Gravely said, the “togetherness” of the group. And it’s meant much more than any undefeated record the team has achieved.

Dalhousie’s first playoff challenge to that philosophy comes in the late game Thursday at 6 p.m. The squad will face the quarterfinal winner between MUN and (guess who?) Acadia.

“We know now we have the ability to be undefeated and to beat teams that were previously of this, like, top team,” said Gravely. “That understanding has given us a lot of power. We’re ready to go and we’re not scared.”

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