Toronto, ON- As the OUA men’s soccer finals drew to a close and the fans stormed the field, McMaster Marauders captain Gianluca Spadafora thought about those closest to him.
The fourth-year midfielder from Hannon has experienced a lot in his time at McMaster. From playing his first game as a rookie in 2019 to the season being cancelled in 2020. From losing to Carleton in the OUA playoffs a year ago to having a new head coach and many new teammates at the start of this season.
Now, after a 1-0 victory at Downsview Park against the Toronto Bold on Saturday, he was celebrating an OUA title. As the celebration ensued, he looked for his veteran teammates from his first season: Antonio Sereno, Matt Monteiro and Nick Matsos.
“Those are the guys who helped me a lot in my first year, that they were all there,” he noted. He found them and then later found his current teammates as well.
Spadafora and his teammates came into their finals against the TMU Bold with momentum. The Marauders had won five straight games and nine of their last ten. They build cohesion and unity over time. They experienced their first playoff victory together as a group – beating defending OUA champion Guelph – and had a night to remember in front of their home crowd against Nipissing in the semi-finals.
While they were on the road at Downsview Park against TMU, they were cheered on by a loud and vibrant supporter section. They were cheered on by their alumni.
The game was even to start before TMU’s Luca Di Marco was sent off for a high boot in the 25th minute. Despite being down one player, the Bold continued to press and had more of the possession as the game wore along.
The Bold couldn’t finish. At times, they missed the net or missed the final pass. McMaster’s Dante Morrissette and Justin Wood covered the sides. Goalkeeper Ethan Cagalj and centre backs Ahmad Mansour and Sam Richardson came up with crucial tackles, blocks and clearances.
“Ahmad is probably one of the best centre backs in all of U SPORTS,” McMaster head coach Chris Markou noted. “Today, Sammy showed me he is equally as good. Some of the challenges he made today were absolutely fantastic…he sacrifices, he just plays and you don’t hear a peep from him but he just leads by example.”
The Marauders waited to strike on the counter. They had opportunities throughout the match but in the 79thminute, they struck.
The ball was pushed quickly up the field to midfielder Justin Baker out wide. Baker crossed it into the box where forward Amir Shirazi shot it past TMU goalkeeper Ali Ghazanfari. Ecstasy. Shirazi and his teammates went over to celebrate with their supporters.
“We knew we would trap them on a counter,” Markou said. “We were hoping to play for a trap.”
He said Shirazi’s play has been “absolutely fantastic” the past few games.
With the goal in tow, the Marauders still had to defend the lead. They did, although the Bold had a few chances at the end, including a couple that just went over the bar.
When the final whistle sounded, the fans poured onto the field. Moments later, Spadafora and his teammates were celebrating with their gold medals and the OUA trophy. He said he’ll remember this night forever.
“You’re just going over to your teammates, hugging them, saying like ‘it isn’t real’,” Spadafora said. “It’s just a feeling from when you’re 22 or maybe when you’re 52, you’ll always have felt as soon as that whistle went.”
As a former McMaster player, Markou has shared his experiences with the team throughout the season. He shares them to hopefully prepare them for what’s to come. It’s his first year as head coach – in an interim role – after being an assistant last year.
Before their game against Nipissing, he reminded them to embrace the moment but also remain calm.
Before their game against TMU, he reminded them about focusing on the game and not nationals. “My whole talk was about we have work to do today and we need to perform,” he recalled. “Let’s get through these 90 minutes. Whatever happens next, happens next.”
Thirty years ago, Markou was in their shoes, celebrating a OUAA title. The Marauders were facing Laurentian at 10 Acre Field at McMaster. Just like 2022, they won on a late goal. Then-head coach Tom Casey was in his second year back then. He was at the start of a 17-year tenure and was inducted into the McMaster Athletics Hall of Fame in 2012. Against TMU, Casey was watching and supporting from the sidelines.
“To have my coach here experience this with me, knowing how he felt,” Markou said. “I’m just glad I could share this moment with him.”
Markou notes there are differences between winning it as a player compared to as a coach. For one, how he can’t be on the field influencing the game.
“You just have to sit and watch and hope that the vision and the game plan you have actually works and they follow and listen,” he noted.
Like Casey, Markou and his former teammates did in 1992, now Markou’s current players experienced that championship moment as well.
“I’m so happy they had the chance to do that,” he said. “I wanted this for them. I wanted them to taste this themselves and have their own stories to share with each other.”
For those current players, their hard work and perseverance was rewarded with an OUA title. “It makes it all worth it,” Spadafora said.
He mentions the stress, the sacrifice and the uncertainty around COVID about whether they were going to be able to play. He mentioned the rough days they endured.
“You come in sore,” he noted. “You don’t really want to play but you push yourself to it and you keep pushing hard and things like this happen.”
Markou replaced long-time head coach Dino Perri in 2021. The team had a lot of roster turnover, including eight first-year players. Mansour came in from Waterloo and Morrissette from Michigan State.
“I couldn’t believe we had done it,” Markou said. “Just to see how things unfolded, it’s hard to comprehend at times but…I’m happy for the guys. I’m happy that the vision I had for these guys to get this far has happened.”
As Markou shared the moment with Casey and Spadafora shared it with his former teammates, it was a reminder that this championship was for the alumni as well.
“A lot of the success to happen this year has been accumulated over three to four seasons,” Spadafora said. “Former players, former coaches, former mentors…you know, this is as much ours as it is [their’s].”
The team celebrated their championship on the field, in the locker room, on the bus ride home and into the night in Hamilton. They’ll fly out to Kamloops for U SPORTS soccer nationals, with hopes of winning another medal and another title.
Markou and Casey won silver at nationals twice and bronze once. Perhaps this is year the Markou gets another medal. Perhaps this is the year the team wins gold – something the program’s never done before.
They have the momentum and the unity. They’ll also always have that memory of winning the OUA title on that warm November evening at Downsview Park and the journey that got them there.
TMU Pushes Forward to Nationals
Despite the loss, Bold head coach Filip Prostran said he was proud of the team. TMU generated chances despite the early red card and came close to equalizing.
“I thought the guys played really well. The guys fought. I thought we had some chances to win the game,” he said. “We just got caught on one play.”
The Bold had more shots, shots on goal and corners than McMaster but couldn’t capitalize. They kept pushing until the end though. It was still a successful season for the team as they reached nationals for the first time since 2013. Prostran was an assistant coach back then.
They finished second in the OUA East and defeated perennial powerhouse Carleton in the quarterfinals before beating Waterloo 3-0 in the semi-finals. The Bold also were honoured with two OUA First-team All-Stars (Di Marco, Christian Westlake) and two Second-team All-Stars (Kai Martin, Juan Pablo Delgadillo).
“You’re going to have to use this as motivation,” Prostran noted. “It’s a funny game sometimes. Sometimes, you deserve to win and you don’t. Sometimes it goes the other way…take the motivation from it. Take the positives from it.”
Prostran said the goal is to get healthy for nationals and not dwell on the defeat.
“I was really happy with our performance today. I really really was,” he added. “Sometimes, that’s the way it goes.”
With Files From Kieran Gorsky/The Eyeopener
Featured Image: Curtis Martin/McMaster Athletics/TMU Athletics