In its 17 prior contests this season, comprising Canada West league matches and playoffs, as well as U SPORTS national championship ones, the Trinity Western Spartans women’s soccer team’s 16-0-1 record showed both an aptitude and an ability to succeed at whatever kind of adversity had been placed in front of them, from injuries to late-game comebacks and everything in-between.
On Sunday, in the national championship final on the campus of Cape Breton University in Sydney, NS, however, they found themselves staring up at the one hurdle every team ultimately accepts but hopes to avoid: Penalty kicks.
And unfortunately for a Spartans team seeking a sixth national title and its first since 2013, it was a crossroads which led to defeat.
After TWU and the MacEwan Griffins battled through a 30-minute overtime locked in a 2-2 draw, the two teams went to penalties to decide the national championship
Anna Dunn and Olivia Kranjcec each tallied for the Spartans in the extra session, but three others failed to connect as the Edmonton school prevailed to win its first-ever national U SPORTS title.
Thus the Spartans, looking to complete its combined Canada West and U SPORTS record at an unbeaten 17-0-1, instead suffered their only loss of the season over a campaign in which they were the nation’s dominant team until the latest stages of the figurative 11th hour.
“Really gutted for the girls,” said Spartans head coach Graham Roxburgh, the U SPORTS Coach of the Year. “They gave everything they had to give, and they had an incredible run.”
Yet after opening the championships last Thursday with a 4-0 win over host Cape Breton, the Spartans were forced to go 120 minutes Saturday in a 4-2 semifinal win over Laval, then another 120 on Sunday against MacEwan just to get to the the penalty kick portion.
It was a place where they had won national championships in the past, but had never lost.
Yet in Sunday’s national final, when striker Kathryn Harvey took a feed from teammate Maddie Melnychuk in the 16th minute and found the back of the net to give Trinity Western an early 1-0 lead, how could the Spartans’ faithful not think that the script, from their perspective was going as planned.
After all, in the last four straight games, the Coquitlam native had potted the winning goal for her team, including a beauty in Saturday’s dramatic win over the Rouge et Or.
Yet the goal which looked to have put TWU ahead 2-0 not too soon after, off a spectacular header to the back of the net by defender Liz Hicks, was ruled offside.
For most of the rest of the way, the figurative gloves came off, in what turned into a physical, grinding battle.
In the 37th minute, MacEwan’s Raeghan McCarthy tallied off a penalty kick, and that was followed by a game-defining 45th minute tally by Salma Kamel just before halftime which put TWU back on its heels down 2-1.
Harvey, with what would be her fourth goal at nationals in three games, equalized early in the 63rd minute with a clutch strike.
“I loved the way the girls fought their way back in after being down 2-1, but after that it became a war,” said Roxburgh, “a real midfield scrap battle. They didn’t generate many chances and neither did we.”
Of course, it was impossible to miss the presence Harvey has been through the entire run of the post-season.
“We have had some big-game player step up in a couple of moments over the playoffs and Kat is certainly top of the list,” said Roxburgh. “To score the goal she scored last night to send us through against Laval, and then to get us on the sheet early today, and then to have the courage to slot home that second one when she’s in against the keeper in a tight space with players kind of catching her… she’s been a servant to our program and grown, and been a wonderful striker.”
As a scoreless overtime ended, however, MacEwan keeper Breanna Truscott was taken to hospital after suffering what appeared to be a serious injury. Her back-up, Bianca Castillo, came into the shoot-out portion cold and somehow managed to backstop her team to the national title.
“Sometimes you win those shootouts and sometimes you don’t but I am really proud of my girls,” said Roxburgh. “I don’t think we necessarily generated enough chances to say we deserved to win, but I don’t think we deserved to lose.”
What would have happened to the flow of the game if Hicks, the team’ stop defender but also a huge piece of its offensive set-up and attack, hadn’t been ruled offside when she nodded home the potential 2-0 goal so early in the game?
And how much influence and flow did TWU lose when, with eight minutes left in overtime, Hicks was assessed a second yellow card and thus forced to leave by ejection in what was the final game of a glorious university career?
Either way, she will go down as a foundational player in TWU Spartans program history.
“To play in the final game of the season is always special, and even though tonight we on wrong end of the result, I couldn’t be any more proud,” said Roxburgh. “I said to them ‘Win or lose this game, you have earned the right to play it the last game on the last day and that is a special honour.’ To be a penalty shoot-out away from a national championship.. this group is very special. I will remember their togetherness more than I will remember the highs and the lows of the season.”
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