TORONTO, ON. – Thrhough all of U SPORTS women’s soccer, the Canada West Prairie Division proved to be one of the most engaging in 2022, for all the wrong reasons. After their national championship title the year prior, the MacEwan Griffins saw their season go up in smoke in the final moments.
However, MacEwan, and the rest of the Prairie Division return for 2023, bringing intrigue and excitment once again, as well as a wake-up calls for athletics programs to monitor their eligiblity protocols.
With kickoff set for Aug. 25, 49 Sports previews every team and predicts the 2023 Canada West Prarie Division. Earlier in the week, we also previewed the Pacific Divisoon.
The MacEwan Griffins are undoubtedly a national championship contender and will play with a chip on their shoulder in 2023. Last season, the Griffins were on pace to finish atop the Prairie Division; however, they were stripped of results due to fielding an ineligible player in several games.
After achieving a 12-3 record, it was revealed the veteran midfielder Erin Van Dolder had played an extra season of eligibility, with the program miscounting her years with NCAA side Rice University, combined with the COVID-19 eligibility restrictions. As a result, MacEwan missed the playoffs and finished with an official record of 3-11.
It’s only been two years since the Griffins stood atop the U SPORTS podium in 2021, and that is their goal again this season under head coach Dean Cordeiro. While many from that team, notably Samantha Gouveia, have moved on, strong contributors remain throughout the roster.
Intriguingly, Gouveia remains with the group as a mental performance coach.
Up front, Grace Mwasalla takes the reigns of the top forward in Canada West, having scored 20 goals in 26 matches through her MacEwan career. Mwasalla has proven to be a true talisperson for the Griffins and thrives in their systems, something she’ll hope to continue in 2023, coming off a 15-goal season in 2022.
“Competition within the depth chart has been immense, but good healthy competition is what’s needed for any team that wants to go on a big run,” Cordeiro told MacEwan Athletics.
“We’re looking forward to [rookie] contributions, but we also understand they are first years. It’s a big jump from high school to varsity. We’ve got to make sure they’re ready before we overdo it with anybody.
Now a third year, the Chatham, Ont. native will once again play alongside Breanna Paquin, who posted eight assists in 2022, with the pair looking to continue their attacking prowess. Meanwhile, midfielder Maya Morrell enters her senior year as an influencing midfielder, looking to carry the form she showcased with League 1 BC’s Altitude FC this summer. Hannah Supina also returns for a fifth season, now wearing the armband.
With determination in the wake of last year’s heartbreak, the MacEwan Griffins present one of the most intriguing storylines in U SPORTS this season and will be on the hunt to regain their top crown in 2021.
Player to watch: Grace Mwasalla
If 2022 was a new era for the Calgary Dinos in the wake of the graduating Montana Leonard, who left as the Canada West all-time single-season leading scorer, this year marks the need to return to contention.
While last season saw the Dinos finish third in the conference, and qualify for the U SPORTS Championships, the chance to compete for a Canada West title looms again in 2023.
Led by head coach Diogo Raposo, who takes the full reigns this season, the Dinos look to build on their 9-3-2 record from 2022, his first in solo charge of the program. With few players graduating, he’ll have a chance to build on their success from his first season in charge.
Generally scoring by committee, the Dinos will turn to their top scorer, now senior Rachel Barlow, who scored six times and put up 11 assists, to contribute at the top end of their roster. Yet, they will also need significant contributions from Erica Mysko and Jayden Berg to elevate them to compete with the division’s top teams in UBC and Trinity Western.
While there is a significant holdover, the Dinos also welcome eight recruits, including goalkeeper Rumaysa Khan, who has represented the Pakistani Women’s National Team. Khan, a Missisauga, Ontario native, becomes the fourth keeper on the roster, but will likely see playing time in relief of likely starter, Katie French.
The Dinos might be without the firepower of some of the conference’s top contenders. Still, their astute style and tactical awareness under Raposo could lift them to Canada West and U SPORTS contention.
Player to watch: Rachel Barlow
The Alberta Pandas see the potential to rise up the Canada West Prairie Division standings this
season as last year’s top-seeded MRU Cougars switch over to the Pacific Division, replaced by the Calgary Dinos.
While the Dinos won’t pose an easy challenger for the top of the division, the Pandas will have familiarity on their side and a class of veterans, headlined by leading scorer Adrienne Poulin, who will hope to vault the Pandas to Canada West contention.
After scoring just a single goal in 11 appearances in her first season with the Pandas, Poulin, a highly-touted BTB Soccer Academy graduate, scored 10 in 13 matches as a sophomore, the third most in Canada West. With her leading the line, head coach Kristyn Shapka will look to midfielder Erin Hope, who proved one of the premier chance creators in the conference last season.
Meanwhile, Kelli Haffie returns to the backline, where she has developed into one of the most consistent defenders in U SPORTS through her two seasons.
Alberta’s prowess has been in attack for several seasons, leading the division with 37 goals in 2022, and that is unlikely to change with a veteran core this season, with their sights set on pushing through their division and onto the U SPORTS Championships.
Player to watch: Kelli Haffie
The Saskatchewan Huskies have had their preseason preparations impacted by the wildfires in western Canada, yet have found creative ways to continue practices. While outdoor sessions have not always been doable, the program has spent portions of its preseason at the Huskies’ hockey arena, working on skills in tight spaces.
However, when air quality permitted, the Huskies hit the road for preseason friendlies and got significant time with outdoor on-field preparations. With eight first-year players, Saskatchewan features one of the younger groups in the division but has substantial experience within their veteran group, which could soften the adjustment period.
Third-year forward Alyssa D’Agnone got off to a strong start in preseason after scoring seven goals in 14 matches last season, as she found the back of the net against the Lethbridge Pronghorns in a 4-1 victory. At the same time, rookies Jenna Stacey and Madison Mayert looked unfazed by the university level, impressing head coach Jerson Barandica-Hamilton.
“A few standout performances came from our rookies in Madison Mayert, who was always threatening the opponents on the back line,” the gaffer told Huskies Athletics. “Jenna Steacy was a stable and reliable fullback in and out of possession.”
Should the Huskies improve on their standing this season, it would likely come from the backline, improving on their 20 goals conceded through 14 matches, which put them in the middle of the conference defensively.
The U SPORTS Canada West Prairie Division isn’t easy, and the Huskies will be tough, but they have intriguing pieces that could elevate them among the playoff sides.
Player to watch: Alyssa D’Agnone
Making the playoffs again will be the goal for the Regina Cougars; however, with the ultra-competitive top of the division, it will prove a challenge for head coach Astrid Baecker’s group.
In 2022, the Cougars qualified for the Canada West quarter-finals on the back of MacEwan’s elimination yet fell to the top-seeded and eventual Canada West champion UBC Thunderbirds. All that, coming after a regular season that saw them go 2-7-5 and a miraculous play-in game effort against the Manitoba Bisons to clinch the full playoff berth.
Last season’s co-leading scorer, Taylor Bubnick, has since graduated from the program, leaving much of this year’s attack up to the play of Payton Enns, who scored five goals and contributed assists in 2022. However, Enns’ season is also impacted, not having a fellow experienced attacker to play off of through the campaign.
While the goals likely dry up from their 21 in 2022, the back end remains a concern for the group, as they were the only Canada West team to make the playoffs while conceding over two goals per game. The opponents scored 32 times in 14 matches against the Cougars.
Some solace can be found with their preseason results, however, earning a 2-2 draw against the Calgary Dinos in their final exhibition game while also beating the Winnipeg Wesmen and Lethbridge Ponghorns, in addition to a loss against the MRU Cougars.
The kick-off weekend won’t be too easy for the Cougars, facing MacEwan and Alberta on an Edmonton weekend. Still, the return weekend against a lowly Winnipeg side should lift their group even after the first few weeks.
Player to watch: Payton Enns
The Manitoba Bisons enter this season with plans to play several matches in the largest venue in the conference, IG Field, home of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers and CPL’s Valour FC. However, their expectations on the pitch are less grandiose.
Led by head coach Vanessa Martinez-Lagunas, the Bisons finished fourth in the division in 2022 but failed to win the play-in game. At the same time, they lost leading attacking force Bianca Cavalcanti after she scored a team-high nine goals last season.
Much of the focus will turn to Jessica Tsai in 2023, as the hometown midfielder hopes to bounce back to her form of 2019 that saw her score six goals and 10 assists as a rookie. She has 41 points in 42 matches with the Bisons through her three U SPORTS seasons.
The 2023 season represents a new chapter for Manitoba as they look to return to the Canada West playoffs.
Player to watch: Jessica Tsai
The Lethbridge Pronghorns will have an uphill battle this season but have new life with a new face on the touchline.
After a 2022 season and a record of 2-10-2, the Pronghorns replaced head coach Macky Singh with Thiago Bastos, marking their third coach in the last four seasons. Before Singh, the Pronghorns let go of coaches Jack Reddy and Ilsa Wong for violating COVID-19 protocol in 2020.
All to say, the Pronghorns touchline has not seen consistency in nearly a half decade, and Bastos will look to settle the program this season while aiming to build the team into a playoff contender down the line. He comes to Lethbridge after coaching with the Whitecaps Academy and a stint as an assistant coach with the Winnipeg Wesmen.
To find success this season, the Pronghorns will look for striker Hailey Slobodian to build on her eight goals from 2022, yet it won’t be an easy year with some national title contenders atop their division.
Player to watch: Hailey Slobodian
It would be a massive achievement if the Winnipeg Wesmen find their way out of the bottom of Canada West and U SPORTS. Long in the shadow of the Manitoba Bisons, the Wesmen have consistently struggled in women’s soccer, playing to a record of 2-11-1 last season. At the same time, they conceded a conference-high 43 goals, or 3.07 per game, only better than the OUA’s Algoma Thunderbirds and RMC Paladins on a national level.
Led by 10th-year head coach Amy Anderson, the Wesmen will hope the talents of Jazmyn Castro and Madison Priebe are enough to keep them competitive.
Player to watch: Madison Priebe
49 SPORTS PREDICTIONS
- MacEwan Griffins
- Calgary Dinos
- Alberta Pandas
- Saskatchewan Huskies
- Manitoba Bisons
- Regina Cougars
- Winnipeg Wesmen
- Lethbridge Pronghorns