QUÉBEC CITY, QC – If a story could be written from a spot 12 yards from goal, the UBC Thunderbirds and Laval Rouge et Or may have penned the most dramatic chapter on Thursday night.
As over 700 fans dotted the sidelines of TELUS-UL Stadium, crammed against fences and down from the stand, they looked on as goalkeeper Myriame Labrecque took a step, then a lunge and a dive.
She stopped UBC’s Dakota Chan. Two shots later, Megane Darchen fired the ball past UBC’s Sarah Johns, and Laval was off to the U SPORTS semifinals, beating the UBC Thunderbirds 5-3 in penalties (1-1) for the second year in a row. This time, however, in a knockout match, unlike 2021’s bronze medal game.
It’s fair to say there could be a dramatic novel involving UBC and Laval from the penalty spot.
“Playing them last year helped a lot, it’s more practice in the end, and you get better through practice, but playing them last year gave me some knowledge,” Labreque told 49 Sports post-match. “I know it’s my job to stop penalties.”
While the final result didn’t go the way of the Thunderbirds, the Vancouver side brought intensity from kickoff, finding a quick breakthrough courtesy of one of their most electric players. Chan sent a long throw into the box for Katalin Tolnai to flick on with the back of her head, leaving Sophie Damian to finish her shot past Labrecque, giving UBC an early lead in the third minute.
Yet, despite the Thunderbirds scoring in the first seven minutes for the fifth time this post-season, they kickstarted the Rouge et Or, who controlled the match through the rest of the first half.
As Lea-Jeanne Fortier linked up with Mathilde Rousseau and Daphnee Blouin, the Rouge et Or pressed on against the Thunderbirds, forcing significant saves from fifth-year goalkeeper Sarah Johns, who hadn’t gotten much playing time through previous seasons due to the stardom of Emily Moore.
Johns stormed out to breakaways, made diving and tipped saves, and commanded her area, all to keep her Thunderbirds ahead by the slimmest of margins. Just through 45 minutes, the Calgary-born keeper made six stops.
While shots flew on UBC’s goal, the centreback duo of Jacqueline Tyrer and Ella Sunde stood their ground, with crunching tackles to break up Laval attacks. And by the time the official blew for half-time, it was a half miracle UBC had a clean sheet.
It wouldn’t last long after halftime; however, as the Rouge et Or; walked back out to their bench to the trumpet melodies of “Narcos” by Timmy Trumpet, there was a clear feeling they would tie the game.
In the 48th minute, Blouin cut outside and brought the ball down the wing before sending a seeking cross in for none other than L-J Fortier, who swiftly headed home past Johns, sending the home crowd into a fever pitch.
From that point, it was a chess match. Small moves from each coach, big saves from each goalkeeper and spells of possession that looked like they would fit in a professional league.
Through it all, however, neither side could find a goal. Off the post. From distance. Cleared off the line. The chances were there, the teams came close, but neither could find a second goals.
As the crowd continued to push the Rouge et Or through the 90 minutes and past the 30 extra, the match sprinted to penalties, where the finest of margins fell in favour of the home side, with Megane Darchen’s penalty settling in the goal.
“[The crowd] is what lifted us up; we’re against the best team in the country and the Canada West champions, so we knew it would take everything we had to beat them, and we managed to do that,” said Laval assistant coach Rachel Collard. “Very dramatic; there were a lot of emotions tonight.”
The Rouge Et Or now turn their attention to the U SPORTS semifinal and a matchup with last year’s hosts, the Cape Breton Capers, who pushed past the York Lions with a 1-0 win on Thursday. But, unlike CBU as last year’s hosts, the Rouge et Or will get a chance to play for a medal on their home pitch; the only question is what colour it will be.
Meanwhile, for UBC, it’s an end of an era of vying for a U SPORTS title. The end for the core group that led them to Nationals glory in 2019.
After a confidence-boosting Canada West gold medal, their first since 2016, the veteran-laden group won’t get another chance at U SPORTS gold, as core seniors, Dakota Chan, Danielle Steer, Jessica Williams, and Sarah Johns all move on.
Yet, as they look towards the second semester and potential professional careers overseas, the UBC Thunderbird still have a few games left with the group as they take on the consolation bracket alongside TWU, York and Calgary, looking to finish fifth place.
“I think we were just one or two steps off in that second phase and unfortunately it just didn’t quite bounce in the right spot for us,” said UBC Head Coach Jesse Symons post-match to UBC Athletics. “No doubt the players pushed so hard and did everything they possibly could. Unfortunately we couldn’t end it during regulation at the end of the second half and in overtime as we started to really get after them.”
In tournament soccer, the smallest margins make a difference. Whether the inches on the penalty kick that Johns nearly stopped or the passes that went astray in the game on either side.
Laval and UBC wrote a legendary chapter on Thursday night and played a game that all the participating student-athletes will remember for several years. And for Laval, a chance to live up to the golden part of their name, playing a medal match on home turf.