KINGSTON, ON – Ness Timmons Field at Cape Breton University is 1,300 kilometres from Kingston’s Richardson Stadium, the site of the 2023 U SPORTS Women’s Soccer Championship.
Still, the Trinity Western Spartans remember the day they stepped off that pitch in 2021.
The MacEwan Griffins defeated TWU that day, leaving the Spartans without the 2021 U SPORTS title. However, TWU has taken a similar path in 2023, beating the Laval Rouge et Or 3-0 in Friday’s semifinal, the same opponent they beat two years ago, while advancing to the final to take on a Canada West opponent, this time the UBC Thunderbirds.
“It sucked; it’s not something I want to feel again,” said Spartans veteran midfielder Maddie Melneychuk of making another final, recalling previous heartbreak. “We have done everything we can and are ready to go out on Sunday and create a different feeling.”
The Spartans have delivered in big games this season, and Friday’s semifinal was no different. After taking the first half minute to settle into the match, the Spartans turned up the tempo and had their wide players challenge Laval’s technical attackers, limiting space for Daphnee Blouin and Lea-Jeanne Fortier.
Yet, it took until the 58th minute for the Spartans to find the breakthrough, and when they did, the floodgates opened. Tilly James sent in a corner kick just before the hour mark, which bounced around the Laval goalmouth before Melnychuk pushed it over the line, and moments later, an Erin Stewart corner kick met the head of Danielle Cooper at the far post for the 2-0 goal.
Against what head coach Graham Roxburgh called “the most technically advanced team in U SPORTS,” the Spartans played confidently in their approach, distributing attacking patterns and finding opportunities through a high press and counterattacks.
Charity Field added a third goal in the 80th minute after Sophie Crowther made a skillful run up the wing before leaving to Melnychuk, whose shot was stopped by Laval’s Anne-Marie Laroche before being slotted home on the rebound.
“We executed the game plan well, and I thought the difference in the second half was that we had a couple corners, and I thought at one point we would get a break,” Roxburgh said. “If you close down [Laval’s] spaces and make them play to the outside, you can find joy, and once they start doubting themselves, momentum swings the other way.”
While Hannah Miller made three saves in goal to ensure the clean sheet, it was another night for TWU where former New Zealand youth international James stood out on the backline, in addition to her corner kick assists.
She continuously battled with Laval’s threats and was critical in controlling the defensive spaces while working the ball into midfield for Bryana Buttar to advance up the pitch to more attacking areas.
Although the strong play isn’t new for James, shutting down a Laval attack that has punished some of the best teams in U SPORTS is no small feat.
“Their style of play is beautiful, and they’re a great playing out team, and we had to respect that, so we knew it was going to be a hard game,” James said. “It was just about doing what we do best and adapting to their style, but also trying to play to our strengths.”
Despite a few hiccups throughout the season, the Spartans have put together an exceptional campaign and are continuing their strong form at the U SPORTS tournament, where they’ve proved to be among Canada’s best, ahead of their hopes of claiming that crown on Sunday.
A familiar opponent in the U SPORTS Final
With Laval and Queen’s, two testing non-conference opponents, knocked off, the Spartans approach the UBC Thunderbirds in a familiar matchup for the national title. Although the two last met in the 2015 CIS Final in Vancouver, the setup is much different — and likely much quieter this year.
“I wish we could go back to BC to play the game since there would be a lot more people here,” Roxburgh said, “They’re an excellent team, and we respect them immensely, and we know it will be a great battle between two good teams.”
UBC clinched their spot in the final a couple of hours prior, beating the Montreal Carabins 1-0 to head to a championship match for the first time since 2021.
While the two sides enter the national championship showdown familiar with each other, the Spartans enter with extra confidence, knowing they’ve shut down UBC’s talents in the past, as recently as the Canada West Final, where they won on penalty kicks.
At the same time, both teams navigating their way to the U SPORTS Final is a testament to the strength of the Canada West conference compared to the rest in 2023, as both representatives will fight for the title. Meanwhile, it’s an all-RSEQ bronze medal match and an all-OUA fifth-place game.
“We see them often, so we know what they’re about,” Melnychuk said, “we’re ready, and we’ve been preparing all season for this, so it should be a good game.”