KINGSTON, ON – When TWU’s Olivia Kranjcec stepped up to take a 117th-minute penalty kick against the Queen’s Gaels in the U SPORTS quarterfinal, she did so as drums and jeers blared in the background of Richardson Stadium.
Calmly, seemingly not feeling the brisk evening and several distractions, the third-year midfielder stepped up and slotted past Gaels’ goalkeeper Kirstin Tynan, giving the TWU Spartans a 2-1 lead in the late stages and the eventual winning goal to clinch a semifinal against the RSEQ champion Laval Rouge et Or.
Whether lessons learned from strong support on campus for home games or the pressures of winning a tightly-contested Canada West Final against the UBC Thunderbirds, there was no hesitation among Kranjcec or the TWU roster.
While the Spartans took time to settle into Thursday’s nightcap at the U SPORTS Championships, they did what they needed to do, with a strong defensive approach allowing them to stay in the game until the end and through extra time.
Queen’s pressed throughout the middle portion of the match, opening the scoring in the 53rd minute when Vita Naihin sprinted down the wing off a set piece before sending the ball into Kendra Couto, who rose to head the ball past TWU’s Hannah Miller and into the goal.
Yet, the Spartans didn’t sway from their plans — they’ve been here before and know how to handle a national championship tournament and any big game. Understanding the threat Queen’s continued to present with Mattson Strickler, defenders Tilly James and Danielle Cooper held their structure, seldom allowing Strickler or other Gaels a clear shot on goal.
“I thought we started strong and had the better first 15-20 minutes, and we knew Strickler would be a threat. She’s lanky and can get behind, so we were aware,” Spartans head coach Graham Roxburgh said. “We kind of lost our way and started to give them a little bit of belief, and it was a little bit unfortunate we switched off, and they had a good cross and good goal.”
TWU tied the match in the 81st minute with a free kick from second-year Sophie Crowther, who lofted a ball on goal, catching Tynan off her line before settling into the back post as the levelling marker.
The Spartans entered this year’s tournament with immense experience among the roster and a young core that has quickly developed into a contributing facet of their contending squad. With Hannah Miller, the 2023 Canada West goalkeeper of the year, and captain Sierra Haldorson remaining from their 2018 U SPORTS silver medal squad, and other experienced players, they’ve had no issue in the big moments, even as they add younger student-athletes.
Young players, such as Crowther, have become invaluable in their setup, influencing nearly every match since she debuted in 2022, including Thursdays, where rookie Mansha Sidhu played the full 120 minutes.
“I think the real veteran leadership tonight came from [Olivia Kranjcec] and [Tilly James], but whether you’re a first year or a fifth year, you’re a Spartan, so you give your all,” Roxburgh said. “We picked up a couple of weird injuries, so [first years] had to go the distance.”
Big games have become the identity of the Spartans since 2017. Although not always regular season winners, there’s an aspect of do-or-die matchups which gets to Roxburgh’s group and pushes them to a new level.
Whether representing TWU or Unity FC, the program’s affiliated League 1 BC club, there’s a tendency to win the most critical matches on their schedules. Just in 2023, a TWU-heavy Unity battled to a 4-1 win over UBC’s Nautsa’mawt FC in the League 1 semifinal and won the League 1 Canada bronze medal over Alliance United, the Toronto Varsity Blues’ League 1 club.
In TWU colours, they came up big against the Calgary Dinos in the Canada West Playoffs to win in penalty kicks before putting the early playoff worries to bed with wins over the Victoria Vikes and UBC on penalties in the final.
Yet, while the League 1 Unity club doesn’t have the same emphasis on winning, used more as a tool to build for the U SPORTS season, it has proven fruitful, with chemistry carrying over for the summer and some players transferring to TWU from other schools after participating with Unity. Notably, Bryana Buttar won Thursday’s team MVP award and is a fifth-year transfer from the NCAA after playing a standout role with Unity.
“Bryana is an excellent player and she has that ability to show up in big games she did tonight,” Roxburgh said. “Her ability to drive forward with the ball on her foot and her ability to win tackles when we need, she’s a mature player and we’re very fortunate to have her.”
With the experience through her own U SPORTS career, and the critical moments that have already fallen on the Spartans in 2023, it’s no wonder Olivia Kranjcec stepped up to the penalty spot without a fear — she’s a Spartan, and they’ve been here before.