Ottawa, ON – Two years ago, the Carleton Ravens Men’s Soccer program watched immortality slip through their fingers; on Saturday with their 3-1 win over the York Lions to claim the 2023 OUA title, they got one step closer to finally achieving their ultimate goal.
It was back in 2021, on a cold November Sunday on their home pitch at TAAG Park, that the Carleton Ravens stood on the precipice of one of the most stunning U SPORTS Men’s Soccer championship comeback victories of all time.
Locked in a 120-minute duel with the Montréal Carabins but down 2-1 with seconds to go in extra time, it looked like Carleton would miss their chance to win their first national title at home. That is until a ball found Danny Assaf in the box, who tied the game on the final shot of extra time, sending the Carleton faithful into chaos and the game into penalty kicks.
In penalty kicks, though, it was Guy-Frank Essomé Penda, the Carabins superstar and the 2021 U SPORTS Player of the Year, who stepped up to the spot and broke a 4-4 deadlock to give Montréal their second championship and deny the Ravens their place in history.
In the post-game press conference, Kwesi Loney, then the Ravens head coach, now the Assistant Director for High-Performance Sport for Carleton Athletics, and a member of the 2002 Ravens Men’s Soccer program that was the previous last group to make the national final knew this wasn’t the end for the young Ravens team.
“That’s the game,” Loney said. “Sometimes you’re on the top; sometimes you’re on the bottom, a lot of emotional highs and lows, but that’s what’s great about the sport; you get to lick your wounds and come back and do it again.”
The return to the summit wasn’t an easy one, an 8-2-2 record in 2022 saw the Ravens finish third in the OUA East before being dispatched by the TMU Bold in the quarterfinals. That loss marked the final game for Kwesi Loney who after seven seasons, an OUA championship in 2019, being named three-time OUA Coach of the Year in 2017 through 2019 and U SPORTS Coach of the Year in 2019 was promoted to the Athletics Head Office.
To replace Loney, the Ravens brought in Marcelo Plada, the head coach of the Canadian Military National Team and a Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force but fresh faced to U SPORTS coaching.
The gambit worked wonders.
Led by first-team all-stars Raphael Garcia and Luca Piccioli, and second team all-stars Tareq Hamed and Omar Darwish the Ravens finished at the top of the OUA East Division and the OUA outright with a 10-1-1 record. This earned Plada OUA East Coach of the Year honours in his first season.
Into the OUA Playoffs the Ravens received a first round bye before taking on the Toronto Varsity Blues on an ice cold Saturday afternoon at TAAG Park. With the game deadlocked at 0-0 and looking destined for extra time it was Anthony Domanico finding Eric Yoseke who buried the winner in stoppage time to push the Ravens forward.
“He’s [Yoseke] been huge for us,” Plada said about the freshman following Carleton’s semifinal win over Brock. “Always ready, gunning to start to play he’s been over and above my expectations.”
It was in that semifinal game that Yoseke would eventually need to step up a second time.
For their semifinal matchup the Ravens found themselves locked in a battle with the Brock Badgers. After Connor Carroll opened the scoring for Brock in the 27th minute, Luca Piccioli, who finished tied for sixth in the OUA with nine goals on the season stepped up to the penalty spot in the 54th minute and buried one to tie the game at 1-1.
Unlike the previous Saturday the Ravens were unable to escape needing extra time and even 30 minutes later still found themselves squared at 1-1 with the Badgers thus requiring a penalty shootout.
“It was so wild,” Plada said following the game. “There was a point where I couldn’t even watch anymore and I was just covering my eyes and having the players and just reacting off their vibe.”
Both teams hit the back of the net, both teams got stopped as well until finally with the game winner on the line, it was Yoseke who stepped up, buried it and sent Carleton to the OUA Final and back to the National Championship.
With their place in the National Championship secure only two things were undecided heading into Carleton’s Blackwood Cup championship game against the York Lions, where they would seed at Nationals and whether they could take home their first OUA title since 2019.
Carleton won their last two OUA titles in 2019 and 2005 on the road so if playing at home caused any more nerves, it certainly didn’t show.
“Mostly all of the guys nerves were gone,” Carleton forward Luca Piccioli said post-game “We got through two playoff games and we won both of them whether we squeak by or not I think were confident in both of them.
“I think it showed in this one that maybe we got punched in the face in the beginning but we showed character we came back and that’s all that matters.”
The Lions opened the scoring first thanks to Tyler Attardo burying a cross 19 minutes. With a free kick for the Ravens in the 32nd minute though, Piccioli stepped up and did what he had done so many times before, completly fooling York keeper Alessio Carbone to tie the game 1-1
“To be honest i like catching the goalie off and I try to shape my body as if I’m putting it into the box,” Piccioli said. “I saw he was a bit off his line, he was cheating, so I thought why not go for it maybe get us back in the game.”
“I just told them to focus,” Plada said. “All year round we’ve been working on mindfulness, and self-awareness and just being focused in the moment”
“It showed, the guys didn’t lose faith, and kept battling.”
In the 67th minute it was Omar Darwish finding a loose ball in the box and burying it to make it 2-1 for the Ravens. Finally, with minutes left in stoppage time Piccioli stepped up again, dancing around a York defender and burying his second of the game before sprinting to the northeast corner of TAAG Park to get mobbed by hundreds of Ravens faithful.
Carleton had won the OUA title.
One half of the goal was complete.
The OUA title is not the National Championship.
The OUA title is still something that will go down in history and something the members of the Ravens roster will never forget but crucially, the OUA title is not the National Championship that has alluded Carleton and coach Plada knows that the sting of two years has still not gone away.
“It started at the beginning of the year when a lot of the leadership group talked to me about that, Plada said. “The feeling that they had to recapture that opportunity that was missed in 2021 so this is another opportunity for them to get their first national title.”
It’s easy to say that this time is different, but the road they took to get back to this point, perhaps it’s easiest to look at Luca Piccioli, a freshman on that 2021 roster who in his own words “feels like a senior” to this young Ravens team, to see how much the Carleton Ravens believe this is the year they finally win it all.
“We know there’s three games to go but we’re unbeatable it feels like.”
It might just be that simple.