KINGSTON, ON – If the skill, composure, determination and tactical identity could have culminated in a U SPORTS match for the UBC Thunderbirds, it might have been this one.
With feisty tackles, intelligent defending, and an ability to win loose balls on second opportunities, the Thunderbirds pushed the Montreal Carabins to elimination, defeating the defending U SPORTS champions 1-0 with a 33rd-minute own goal off Sophie Damian’s corner kick.
Piling on immense pressure early, the Thunderbirds nearly broke through before the goal, with Nisa Reehal missing a strong change in front of goal, but it took until the half-hour mark for them to force saves out of Kelly Cantin and the eventual deciding tally.
After two years of disappointment at the national championships, with struggles against teams from Quebec, the Thunderbirds showed immense calmness in their approach against the Carabins, pushing shots to wide areas while relying on supporting players as defenders marked effervescent striker Katalin Tolnai.
“We’ve wanted to stick to that defensive identity all season, and what can you say about our back four, as well as Josie Claypool and Taiya Dennehy today, they were unbelievable,” head coach Jesse Symons said.
“I think one thing that’s been great is we have so much depth that we have players that can go in and out a little bit. We have some players chomping to get into the final on Sunday.”
While the Thunderbirds rose to the moment, they were led by their veteran players, many of whom played in the match the last time UBC faced Montreal at the 2019 national championships, which they went on to win.
A similar roster makup to 2019’s U SPORTS Champions
In some ways, the team reflected the 2019 roster in its makeup. At the back, Sarah Rollins played as a rookie alongside Jacqueline Tyrer, now a veteran. At the same time, the midfield saw Damian and Emma Hooton, two veterans alongside Dennehy, who was a standout.
In 2019, it was a similar setup, yet Tyrer was among the rookies that captured the U SPORTS title that season. Now, she’s guiding Rollins’ in her growth as a centreback, and the two have formed one of the most cohesive defensive units, inside wingbacks Sophia Ferreria and Ella Sunde.
“I think I’ve learned a lot since 2019; I have a lot more experience than I did as a rookie,” Tyrer said. “It’s cool to have her because I was in that position, and I feel like just the communication we have going on and the connection we’ve grown over the season is incredible.”
The pair swiftly handled challenging opposition through their first two matches, isolating Ottawa’s Cassandra Provost in the quarterfinal before engaging in a physical and fast battle with Montreal’s Leonie Portelance and Justine Lalande. Despite being at opposite ends of the U SPORTS experience spectrum, they held both teams off the scoresheet.
While the entirety of the match saw UBC achieve several of their targets and highlight the squad’s potential, the composure to finish the match with was one of a team that’s been here before- even though they’ve struggled the last two seasons.
“I feel like none of us have been nervous this time; we have been in the past, and I think that’s the difference,” Tyrer said, teammates dancing in the background, celebrating with friends and family. “We’re more excited than we are nervous.”
As the clock ticked past the 90-minute mark, the pressure only heightened for the Thunderbirds. Symons made quick subs, sending in defensive reinforcement, with Rebecca Morgan returning to the side to see out the game while the players on the pitch stayed attuned to the plan.
“Focus, focus, stay in this game. We know what to do,” Ava Alexander shouted to Katalin Tolnai as UBC attempted to kill the game with a late free kick in their attacking corner. Montreal’s Katya Houpert overstepped her allotted space, earning a late second yellow and red card, and the Thunderbirds finished the game moments later.
Without fear or hesitancy, UBC navigated two of the top teams in the country by the slimmest of margins to make their way back to the national final against either their Canada West foe, Trinity Western Spartans or the Laval Rouge et Or.
“It’s hard not to look at the time in these games, but when you do, the minutes go slow,” Tyrer added. “We’ve gone through all the emotions, and I couldn’t be more excited for the final.“
Winning at the national championship isn’t easy, even for an experienced group. Still, the Thunderbirds are brimming with confidence after the Montreal win as they head into Sunday’s championship match against the Trinity Western Spartans or Laval Rouge et Or.
“We have some unfinished business with Laval, who we’ve lost the last two years to, and TWU, we just lost to in the Canada West final,” Symons said. “Either way, it’s gonna be a great story, and we’re excited whoever we get, we’ll get after it.”