VANCOUVER — There’s a rumour going around that the two most successful women’s soccer programs in U Sports history had explored the idea of staging something akin to hockey’s 1972 Summit Series between the Canadians and the then-Soviet Union.
With the Canada West having already cancelled the 2020 fall sports season due to COVID-19, imagine the prospect of the seven-time defending national champion UBC Thunderbirds facing its crosstown rivals, Langley’s five-time national champion Trinity Western Spartans, in a series of five matches.
“That would have been pretty cool,” UBC head coach Jesse Symons said slyly on Wednesday, “We’re two programs that want to be considered the best, but we may not have had both of our teams standing at the end.”
In lieu of that series, however, the next best thing for the competitive health of the local university women’s game takes place Friday (7 p.m., Thunderbird Stadium) with the Thunderbirds, whom we last left this past November celebrating a 1-0 national title game victory over the Calgary Dinos, facing the Spartans, the latter denied a berth at last season’s nationals following a 1-0 loss to UBC in the conference semifinals.
Perhaps most famously, the two teams met in the 2015 U Sports’ final, staged at Thunderbird Stadium, and UBC’s 3-0 victory gave the school’s athletic program its 100th national title in its 100th anniversary season.
This time around, however, as part of a four-team cohort which also includes the Fraser Valley Cascades and the Vancouver Whitecaps elite REX team, no fans are being allowed into the game, and no official stats are being kept.
In fact, over the course of this week, rumours had it that no statistics would actually be kept, which only added to the bizarre nature of a game, which if national rankings were available, would most certainly be a match-up between Top 10 teams.
“One-hundred percent,” agreed Symons of that sentiment. “It’s the two teams that have won the two most national championships, and together we’ve been in seven of the last eight national finals. I think if you were looking at this in a real season, even though we are part of a very talented conference, it could be the kind of game where we’re fighting for the right to host the Canada West final.”
COHORT COLLECTIVE FOLLOWS DIRECTIVES
Patience has been the key in the build-up to local university soccer programs getting back on the field in competitive match situations during the pandemic.
“We have been taking it very much step-by-step and that ‘middle of the road’ approach, I think, has served us well,” said UBC athletic director Kavie Toor. “We have been able to carry on each step of way, allowing more levels of contact training, and now more levels of exhibition play. It’s been positive.”
UBC’s men’s soccer team has begun play in the Vancouver Metro Soccer League, while both Trinity Western and Fraser Valley are playing in the Fraser Valley League.
“There are enough positive signs for me that we have been able to progress through all the stages — first doing things individually, then in small groups, and then to just our teams — and we’ve done this safely with no positive results in two weeks,” Trinity Western athletic director Jeff Gamache said late last week. “The next step is to enter the cohort model which ViaSport clearly laid out.”
Last weekend, TWU hosted UBC Okanagan in a dual cross-country meet in Abbotsford. Gamache was hopeful that volleyball, basketball, rugby and hockey were on track to eventually follow.
“It’s been super positive that way,” he added. “We have stuck to very strict regimens. I have seen enough of this going positively that I am going to hold out hope that while it may not be a typical Canada West schedule, I think we will have some fairly robust exhibitions.”
ARE THESE 2020 ‘BIRDS EVEN BETTER?
It’s a different world from the one in which Danielle Steer’s 80th-minute header carried UBC to a 1-0 win over Calgary in the national final last November.
Yet if there is a constant in the lead-up to Friday’s clash with the Spartans, it’s the fact that UBC’s overall talent level has remained in tact from a season ago.
In fact, if you look at not only the maturing core of Symons’ team, but at the quality of incoming student-athletes of both the freshman and transfer variety, it’s very likely better.
“We’ve been training five days a week since school started in September, so that’s about 20 sessions, so I think we’re ready for a match…for sure,” the coach says. “And it’s been exceptional… the speed and the tempo. They’ve been playing at a different level. I think we’re in a really exciting spot as a program.”
From keeper Emily Moore, to fullback Anisha Sangha, to Steer and Kat Tolnai up front, the talent is not only blue-chip, but battle-tested as well by virtue of its run to last season’s national title.
Jessica Williams and Jacqueline Tyrer, paired as centre backs late in the season, displayed uncommon chemistry, and Sophie Damian is part of a talented midfield group.
Rookies Sophia Kramer and Jade Taylor-Ryan carry the potential to impact early, while former Whitecaps Danielle Mosher (New Mexico) and Emma Hooton (Memphis) come back home after playing at NCAA Div. 1 programs last season.
And while the contrast of coming off a U Sports title season and returning to an uncertain schedule of games and no ability to repeat as national champs is extreme, Symons says there is so much gratitude for what is still available.
“I think overall, it’s given all of us an opportunity to reflect on why we did well last season,” he says, “and also to look at the ways in which we developed camaraderie and connection with one another. We’ve spent a lot of time together in our little bubble as a team, and although we lose all of the travel, the overnight styas and the competition, which is a big part of any program, there is also a humanistic side that comes into focus. We’re not just athletes, we’re a team and these players all really like each other. It’s helped our environment.”
If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.