KINGSTON, ON – With nine student-athletes from the 2019 U SPORTS Championship team, the UBC Thunderbirds know what winning is like on the biggest stage of Canadian women’s soccer.
Yet, after being eliminated in penalty shootouts against the Laval Rouge et Or in the 2021 semifinals and 2022 quarterfinals, getting past a national championship game in regulation had been a long-awaited goal for a program with as high standards as UBC.
In Thursday’s quarterfinal of the 2023 U SPORTS Women’s Soccer Championship, they finally did that, defeating the OUA Champion uOttawa Gee-Gees 1-0, with a goal from talismanic forward Katalin Tolnai, ridding themselves of the penalties curse that has befuddled them in recent seasons.
“We’ve lost a couple of big games in penalty kicks in the last couple of years, and we didn’t want that to happen again,” head coach Jesse Symons said post-match. “We knew they would be tough, but if we could keep to our identity, which we’ve had all year, and keep teams out of our penalty area, we can succeed.”
From kickoff, there was an essence, a determination, really, in the way the Thunderbirds approached the match. With a midfield of Sophie Damian, Taiya Dennehy and Ava Alexander and engaged fullbacks of Ella Sunde and Sophia Ferreria, the Thunderbirds easily pulled off overlapping runs, often with backheels, toying with Ottawa’s defenders in transition.
With a bit of flash, they created chances throughout the match and could have won by more than a single marker, as Alexander and Tolnai both hit the post, and Jayda Thompson made several threatening runs in her return to the lineup.
While both teams held strong through the first half hour, the Thunderbirds broke the deadlock in the 31st minute, as Dennehy regained a ball in midfield and lofted a pass over the top to a streaking Tolnai, who took advantage of a miscommunication on the Ottawa backline, before finishing into an empty goal past Juliann Lacasse.
“Kat was electric today, unlucky not to get a hat trick today with the confidence she was playing with,” Symons said. “She had three or four amazing chances, and hopefully, those go in against Montreal; that will make it an easier road than 1-0.”
Although the win in the first round, regardless of method, was necessary, capturing a clean performance and getting some of the best qualities out of players throughout their eligibility was critical.
Whether veterans such as Tolnai and Nisa Reehal lead the attacking line or youngsters such as Jayda Thompson and rookie Sarah Rollins, winning against a strong team on the big stage is vital to the group’s progression.
Still, the match showcased UBC’s ability to win several matchups, ending with the final result. Throughout the afternoon, the centreback pairing of Sarah Rollins and Jaqueline Tyrer continued to thrive, often shutting down Ottawa’s Provost.
Meanwhile, Ferreira put on a defensive clinic against Ottawa’s tactical and quick winger, Jenna Matsukubo, who has tormented OUA defenders all season.
“Credit to her, she’s got speed, but we were really determined to shut her down,” Ferreria said. “She even switched sides and tried to go around, but with our energy, we were able to keep up with her pace and keep up with the dribble.”
Only down a goal, the Gee-Gees found some attacking opportunities as the match hit the hour mark, with Provost and Matsukubo forcing Beckett into six saves. However, they couldn’t maintain long spells of attack to break down a stingy UBC side.
Although the Thunderbirds have yet to win a penalty shootout in recent years, losing in penalties to Trinity Western in the Canada West Final set up the clash with Ottawa. This matchup forced UBC to be at their best on Day 1 of the U SPORTS tournament.
“The energy from the team right from the start was insane, and we knew we were going to win this game; there was no doubt in anyone’s mind,” Ferreria said. “We showed today how strong we can be and how we can win, and we’re prepared to keep doing that.”
With the win, the Thunderbirds advance to the semifinals to take on the Montreal Carabins, a team they’ve faced twice since 2009, winning once and losing once. However, with the first round and penalties pressure alleviated after beating Ottawa, there’s a special belief in the 2023 UBC team — especially as they take on a Montreal side they beat en route to their 2019 U SPORTS banner.
Meanwhile, uOttawa’s season continues with the consolation semifinal against the StFX X-Women as they look to extend the careers of their seniors for at least one more match.
“Montreal is a fantastic program, and they will be tough, being national champions last season,” Symons said. “There’s no easy games here. Everyone’s very talented, and everyone is winning programs, so I’m excited to see what we can do tomorrow.”