KINGSTON, ON – Jayda Thompson has sent hundreds of crosses to Katalin Tolnai in training with the UBC Thunderbirds. Despite the routine nature of it, her heart skipped a beat as she delivered a cross in the 118th minute of the U SPORTS Women’s Soccer Final against the Trinity Western Spartans.
A second-year forward with UBC, Thompson regained the ball on a counterattack before curling a cross inside the box, meeting Tolnai, who redirected the ball towards TWU’s goal, and goalkeeper Hannah Miller.
Miller got a hand on it, then almost two. Thompson stood spellbound at the stop as she stumbled over the touchline, watching the ball eventually trickle over the line, giving UBC the 1-0 goal and winning marker in the national championship final.
Tears of jubilation ran down Sophie Damian’s eye as soon as the ball crossed the line, as TWU defenders stood stunned by what they had just seen – everyone knew how battle-tested the Vancouver derby match had become, especially with a U SPORTS banner on the line.
“Honestly, my world stood still when I saw her save it. Something in me knew it was Kat, so I knew it was going to go in, but I was frozen,” Thompson said. “It just trickled over the line so slow; she was already celebrating, but I was so confident in her ability.”
After defeating the OUA Champion uOttawa Gee-Gees in the first round, also on a 1-0 goal by Tolnai, and the Montreal Carabins 1-0 in the semifinals, the Thunderbirds kept a third clean sheet to win their first title since 2019. The win gave them their 8th U SPORTS banner, two more than any other school.
Meanwhile, the Spartans eliminated the host Queen’s Gaels 2-1 in extra time in the quarterfinal before dominating the RSEQ Champion Laval Rouge et Or to the tune of a 3-0 victory before falling in the final.
The rivalry between the two schools is long and heated. Sunday’s championship game at Richardson Stadium in Kingston, Ont. marked the second time they’ve met for the national title, the last in 2015 when UBC won on their home pitch.
Through 330 minutes of 2023 regular season and playoff action between UBC and TWU, the Thunderbirds only scored two goals while posting clean sheets in all three matches — including two that reached extra time.
“It’s not fun to face that team. We knew it was going to be a battle because it always is like the final was in Canada West, but I’m just glad we finished it,” Tolnai said post-match. “I knew it would only take one chance to score, and that one was coming right to my head, and I wasn’t going to miss.”
However, both sides enjoyed spells of possession and attacking opportunities throughout the match, with both coaches making tactical adjustments to win individual battles all over the pitch.
While TWU had to fight through missing their captain, Sierra Haldorson and had to play a few minutes at the end of the first half without influential midfielder Sophie Crowther, who got a knee to the face, they pushed ahead, players stepping up around the pitch.
At the same time, the Thunderbirds tinkered, sending first-year attacker Bailey Doerksen into the match in the 30th minute, as she returned to play for the first time since the Canada West semifinal, making an immediate impact.
“The energy just from everyone on our team, the stands with the fans, it’s electric and I wasn’t scared to get into the match even if it has been a little while,” Doerksen said, having scored her first U SPORTS goal against TWU in the regular season. “Jesse [Symons] just told me to go in there and make a difference, and being able to help our team eventually lead to being national champions is everything I could ever ask for.”
While the two sides exchanged chances in a heated midfield battle, the Thunderbirds were the first to threaten the goal, when Nisa Reehal hit the post in the 59th minute. Moments later, Sophie Damian burst through the midfield, connecting with the post as well.
As the match wore on, the Spartans appeared destined for the title, peppering UBC goalkeeper Dakota Beckett with chances in the end of regulation time and dominating possession and attacking opportunities through the 30-minute extra time.
Becket made 12 saves on the day, a season-high, providing enough of a fallback even as UBC’s defence began to falter. In the final moments, it was a counterattack from one of her stops that led to Tolnai’s winner.
“It got to a point where I didn’t care how tough the shot was or what was happening, I just knew I had to get to the ball to make a save,” she said. “So much of this tournament was getting our mentality right, because we can be so dominant in our own conference, but we prepared ourselves really well.”
Yet, the close games are just what the Thunderbirds do when they win titles – in 2019, they won every match 1-0, just as they did in 2023 in Kingston. For nine players, however, the Kingston title marked their second, having previously won as youngsters in Victoria.
“Winning 1-0 all through the tournament and then seeing that ball roll over the line like it did in 2019 is it’s crazy,” Symons said. “Kat headed it just enough, and what a moment. I don’t want to say it was feeling like deja vu of 2019, but it was.”
Although some of the nine have remaining eligibility, many of them will move on, either to professional careers on the pitch, or in the working world.
“Yeah, that was my last game,” Tolnai said, despite having a year of eligibility remaining. Meanwhile, Symons quipped that he hoped that header goal would convince her to come back.
While the core group of the 2019 and 2023 teams likely won’t play another match together, they’ve helped define the latest generation of Canada’s most decorated university women’s soccer program while leaving it in a strong spot for the future.
“Kats, my best friend, and the 2019 group and this year are such a great group of girls to have these connections and memories with,” Damian said. “It’s two special moments in my life, and there’s not many times you can say you had your best day, twice.”
Future is bright for UBC, TWU, women’s soccer
Although many veterans from the two programs are set to graduate or run out of eligibility, the final showcased both groups’ talents in first and second-year players.
Crowther, who continued to stand out, was critical for the Spartans and will be for years to come, ready to take on the next season, knowing the pain of a loss. Similarly, head coach Graham Roxburgh can look to Danielle Cooper, Mansha Sidhu and Charis Wadrope, all set to be long-term contributors.
Meanwhile, the Thunderbirds can look at Doerksen and centreback Sarah Rollins among their first years and be confident in the progression of Thompson and Taiya Dennehy, who took on significant roles at the U SPORTS tournament.
“I know our group is going to be in a very good space going forward,” Symons said. “I know there will be a few who will be chomping a bit to be in our starting 11 for next season.”
One eye on Project 8
Despite no current domestic professional women’s soccer league for players to advance to next season, the idea of Project 8, a new Canadian pro women’s league launching in 2025, is at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.
For Doerksen and the younger players in particular, capturing a national championship in their first and second years lays the groundwork for what could culminate in a professional contract on home soil.
While the 2024 tournament at Dalhousie next fall will likely have several eyes from Project 8 on it, the 2023 tournament didn’t pass by unnoticed, with Project 8 president Diana Matheson handing out the U SPORTS Awards pre-tournament.
“Playing professionally has been a goal of mine for a long time, and Project 8 is somewhere I would really like to play, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s finally becoming a reality in Canada,” she said post-match. “We have super influential people, like Diana, who are taking part to grow this game, and you can feel a lot of positivity right now.”
For now, however, both programs, as do the players, look towards next season while the seniors move on. Several will likely continue playing in overseas professional leagues, while some will step away from competitive sport forever. Alas, that’s the nature of the game in Canada, and for the UBC Thunderbirds, they end the year on top.