VICTORIA — The video replays proved inconclusive, but did the goal which lifted the UBC Thunderbirds to the top of Canadian university soccer world Sunday night in Victoria actually graze in off of Danielle Steer’s ponytail?
“No,” the UBC Thunderbirds’ third-year forward and championship MVP explained in the aftermath of the biggest goal of her life. “I stretched out as far as I could and I could just feel the tip of the ball go off my head. I think that’s all it took.”
Off a header that was more about nuance than full-contact nod, Steer’s 80th-minute tally deep in the penalty area off a header from the top of the box by teammate Natasha Klasios lifted UBC to a 1-0 title-match win over the Calgary Dinos and back to a familiar perch as U Sports national soccer champions.
Forced to start the post-season away from home in a pair of sudden knock-out games, all these unranked, underdog ‘Birds did Sunday was cap a run in which they won all six of their post-season sudden elimination games with clean-sheet performances.
And while they did lose once, 1-0 to the Dinos in last week’s Canada West conference final, redemption tasted sweet beyond compare. UBC heads into the off-season clutching a record seventh Gladys Bean Memorial national championship trophy.
THE ANATOMY OF A GOAL AND A TEAM
Ninety plus 90 plus 80 equals 260, as in the number of minutes the Dinos had kept UBC off the scoresheet in their three contested matches this season.
The two teams drew 0-0 back on Oct. 18 in a regular season clash in Vancouver. Calgary then won 1-0 in Edmonton at last week’s Canada West final.
Yet when the UBC scoreless drought against the Dinos finally ended Sunday, the tale of that national championship goal so fittingly spoke about what made the 2019 Thunderbirds such a special team.
Sophie Damian, UBC’s sublimely-talented second-year midfielder from North Vancouver, set the scoring play in motion with some expert service right into the Thunderbirds’ offensive wheelhouse.
“Sophie has a magical left foot,” confirmed UBC head coach Jesse Symons, “and she whipped the ball into that central space (at the top of the 18-yard box) where we wanted our players crashing today.”
Natasha Klasios, a newcomer to the team this year as a fifth-year Master’s Degree transfer from the University of Toronto, then did her part.
“I saw the ball in the air, so I just jumped up with a Calgary player and got my head on it,” said Klasios. “I guess it just skimmed off of Dani’s head. A goal’s a goal. It didn’t matter at all to me who scored it. At the end of the day, you’re just happy it went in.”
From the second-year Damian to the fifth-year Klasios to the third-year Steer, these Thunderbirds were a tight-knit group whose talents seem to span the entire U Sports’ five-year eligibility window.
Freshmen like Katalin Tolnai and Jacqueline Tyrer, seconds like Damian and Janika Sangha; thirds like Steer, Jessica Williams and Tess McRae; fourths like Alyssa Hunt, Anisha Sangha, Liesanne Musico and keeper Emily Moore, the latter a Victoria native who saved the season in her hometown stadium with a diving save off Calgary’s Taylor Wells in extra time; and seniors like Klasios and Amelia Crawford, the latter one of only two players in the team to have been a part of UBC’s last national title win back in 2015.
“We’ve got really good balance with our classes, and overall, it was a full-team performance from the young players, the older players, and the rest of the talented players we’ve relied on all season long who might not have played today,” said Symons.
HOW ZOOLOGY HELPED UBC WIN NATIONAL TITLE NO. 7
As the Thunderbirds gathered in their halftime locker room Sunday, Symons made a declaration to his players.
“I told them it would take something weird or something very special (to win) and fortunately, we got a weird bounce off of some good service from Sophie and the ball bounced over the keeper’s head,” said Symons. “It happened, and it was pretty magical.”
And in the dissection of the championship run, it’s impossible to downplay the presence of Natasha Klasios, who might not have been on the field at Victoria’s Centennial Stadium to assist on that national championship game winner had UBC not been home to such a renowned Zoology program.
Yes, what are the chances of having a former FISU Games player, touted as a goal scorer for the Toronto Varsity Blues, simply fall in your lap because she was looking to complete her Master’s in Zoology and chooses UBC for its education first and its soccer second?
Said Symons earlier this season: “Natasha is that diamond you hope to find, that needle in the haystack, that four-year OUA all-star who had a goal-scoring role at Toronto, but here, because we have so many forwards, adapts as a box-to-box midfielder. She is super technical, she wants her Master’s in Zoology, and I think she is going to be a pivotal part of us heading into the playoffs.”
By Sunday night, you’d have sworn Symons had a crystal ball.
At the opening game of nationals on Thursday, deadlocked in a scoreless second-half against the Montreal Carabins, it was Klasios’ attacking header which created the second-chance opportunity that was so ably converted by Tolnai for the game’s only strike.
On Saturday, in UBC’s 1-0 semifinal win over Acadia, it was once again Klasios, this time taking a shot and creating a rebound that Steer converted into the game winner, the duo’s work a portent of what was to follow under the lights, late in Sunday’s national final.
“All of this was absolutely unbelievable,” said Klasios who had never even qualified for the national tournament over her first four years with the Varsity Blues. “To get an opportunity to get to a U Sport championship, and then to win it? This is a high that we’ll all be on for the entire week.”
For her part, as Klasios got accustomed to her new ‘Birds teammates over the summer, and stuck together with them over a winless five-game season-opening stretch (0-4-1) against NCAA Div. 1 competition, she knew she had made the right decision to leave home and fly across the country.
“The energy with these girls was just so amazing,” she said Sunday. “Right from the start we all worked for each other, and back in August, I thought to myself that we could win a national championship.”
“…THIS ONE’S FOR DICK (MOSHER)”
Every national title has its own special meaning, and that doesn’t change, even when you’ve won more times than any program in Canadian history.
UBC’s most recent title came in 2015, and it was as storybook as they come.
In its 100th year as a school, the ‘Birds hosted the national tournament and won it all, in the process capturing its 100th combined national sports title.
Yet Sunday’s latest triumph owes perhaps even more to the one prior, back in 2006.
That season, UBC opened with 2-3-1 record, but came together for a 13-1-1 finish which included 10 straight shutouts. Fittingly, in hindsight, the season ended at the national tournament — hosted by UVic at Centennial Stadium — with a 3-1 win over Queen’s.
And despite all of the elation erupting around him, Symons was clearly moved when asked to talk about the significance of that 2006 national title, the final in the illustrious career of former ‘Birds head coaching great and recent Canada West Hall of Fame inductee Dick Mosher.
“Dick is a legend,” began Symons.”He built this program, he built this amazing atmosphere, and the girls from his ’02 ’03 and ’06 championships are so connected to our team now.
“This one is for Dick and all the players that won it right here in 2006,” Symons added. “At the start of the year, we talked about this week, about going back to Victoria where we had won it all before.
“Tonight, I have to give full credit to the girls for helping to build on our legacy.”
And come Monday morning, when they watch the replays and joke that the winner might have also grazed a ponytail on its way to the back of the net, the legacy and the legend of this latest national title officially becomes a part of UBC women’s soccer history.
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