KAMLOOPS, BC – On a sweltering day at Swangard Stadium, UBC head coach Mike Mosher stood on the sidelines and watched on as the TSS Rovers slotted home a penalty to win the inaugural League 1 BC title over his Varsity FC.
Distraught with heads hung low, Varsity FC quickly left the pitch as the Rovers and their supporters celebrated amid the late summer sun. Yet, as disappointment shielded the faces of the Varsity players and they walked back through the parking lot, a determination was brewing.
Varsity FC, based at UBC, featured a roster with 16 current UBC Thunderbirds, all of whom faced disappointment back in August. From that moment, they were driven to bring a new level to their U SPORTS season.
“It replicates a lot of what we have in Canada West,” Varsity FC men’s head coach Mike Mosher said to AFTN’s Michael McColl ahead of the League 1 season. “ [League 1] is a shorter season, but now you put the two together, and there’s a nice six-month period of good games, proper standards, good venues.”
On Sunday, in the U SPORTS gold medal match, the Thunderbirds meet another League 1 BC and Canada West foe, the TRU Wolfpack, looking for their first U SPORTS title since 2013. For the Wolfpack, many of whom played with Rivers FC in League 1, the match marks a program-best performance at nationals, despite being eliminated in the Canada West quarter-final.
The Thunderbirds didn’t entirely dominate the Canada West regular season, despite finishing atop the Pacific Division with a 9-3-3 record, before cruising through the playoffs en route to their fifth straight Canada West gold medal.
UBC beat Saskatchewan and Alberta in the quarter-finals and semifinals before downing the Calgary Dinos in a dramatic penalty shootout to win the title and clinch their spot at U SPORTS Nationals in Kamloops, BC.
“Finals are never easy, and [Calgary] certainly made it difficult for us,” Mosher told UBC Athletics post-Canada West final. “We’ve been saying during this playoff run, and even the run towards it, that you deal with adversity and you take it on. With championship teams, it is how you deal with those critical moments and when you get challenged.”
Although the Canada West championship extended a long streak of UBC conference success, it’s been nine years since the Thunderbirds, 14-time U SPORTS Champions, have won a national gold medal. A loss on Sunday would mark the program’s longest drought without a national title.
Meanwhile, the TRU Wolfpack finished the season with a 7-3-5 record, and Rivers FC missed the League 1 BC final with a 3-5-4 record that featured a 2-1 win and a 2-1 loss to Varsity. TRU fell to Calgary in the Canada West quarter-finals but had a previously clinched nationals berth as tournament hosts.
UBC and TRU met twice in Canada West this season, with the Wolfpack capturing a 2-0 victory on an opening day at home before playing to a 0-0 draw in Vancouver.
While the looming U SPORTS banner brings a new intensity to the final match, Sunday marks the fifth time the two groups have played each other in the last six months, both as League 1 clubs and university squads.
Although there’s always a new element to each match, familiarity brews rivalries, and that’s what takes centre stage on Sunday. However, with two teams riding a tidal wave of confidence, there’s little to split them ahead of the match.
TRU is coming off eclectic penalty shootout victories over the #1 ranked Cape Breton Capers and OUA champion McMaster Marauders, as the Thunderbirds approach the final after swift wins against the TMU Bold and 2021 U SPORTS champion Montreal Carabins.
“It just means everything. Everyone has been behind us at the university,” said WolfPack head coach John Antulov to TRU Athletics after the semifinal win against CBU. “I told the guys that we are a team that deserves to be here, we are a quality squad and can play with anyone in Canada, and we’ve proven that over the last two games.”
Playing their third match in four days, those who played in League 1 will take the spotlight in the U SPORTS Final, but not in summer temperatures; instead, it’s an expected temperature of -5 degrees celsius.
Look for UBC and Varsity forward Victory Shumbusho to continue his good form after scoring a goal in the national quarterfinal and 17 through Canada West play. At the same time, midfield maestro Thomas Gardner orchestrates the UBC midfield and struck an exquisite free kick to send the Thunderbirds past Montreal in the semifinal.
For TRU, it’s also League 1 players that will likely bear the load, as goalkeeper Jackson Gardner, striker Patrick Izett, and midfielder Marco Favaro will all likely play significant roles.
On Sunday, Mike Mosher will once again stand on the sidelines, albeit not in the sweltering sun, as UBC looks to extinguish the disappointment from the end of the Varsity FC season. While Antulov stands just yards away, looking to put a cap on a historic year of soccer in Kamloops.
It’s been a remarkable six months for the game in Canada’s most western province, highlighted by the launch of League 1 BC, making it seemingly perfect that two beneficiaries of the league will contest for the U SPORTS National Championship at Hillside Stadium.