Four years after helping UBC earn its 100th national title in its 100th birthday year, 'Birds defender Amelia Crawford leads her team back into the playoffs for the final time in her career. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Women's Soccer

UBC women’s soccer: On the road and in the shadows, these 2019 Thunderbirds seem built for U Sports’ second season

VANCOUVER — The UBC Thunderbirds have won the second most U Sports titles this century and are one of those programs which annually finds itself in the conversation when the talk turns to who will hoist the Gladys Bean memorial trophy, emblematic of Canadian women’s university soccer supremacy.

Yet as the 2019 Canada West campaign flicks its switch to opening-round playoff mode beginning Friday, it might be more appropriate to refer to this most recent edition of the blue-and-gold as the best ‘Birds team in recent memory that no one is really talking about.

You can agree or not with that sentiment, yet the bottom line is that the 2019 UBC Thunderbirds are a third-place divisional finisher without a national ranking, and one which has to travel to Saskatoon to play for its post-season life in a sudden-elimination play-in game Friday against the Lethbridge Pronghorns.

Yet while that hardly seems the way to launch a run to the national title, these 2019 ‘Birds (8-2-4) just might be the team everyone winds up whispering about, and that’s because — in a season of extreme conference-wide parity — everything about their process suggests they are a sleeper ready to awaken.

It’s just up to them to be ready to deliver on their potential.

“It has been a league with so much parity this season,” agrees UBC head coach Jesse Symons, whose ‘Birds (8-2-4) must first defeat the Pronghorns (1-6-7) Friday to get a shot at host Saskatchewan (8-2-4) on Sunday for a berth in the conference championship Final Four.

“Look at all the ties, and it’s been amazing how many one-goal games we’ve seen,” continued Symons. “It wouldn’t be the conference where you’d try to bet on who goes through, because really, it’s a year where anyone can win on a given day.”

That’s not just coachspeak.

Over the course of the Canada West regular season, there have been 25 ties and 34 one-goal games. When you consider that those results have been culled from a 112-game schedule, it means 53 per cent of all games played this season were either ties or one-goal games.

UBC’s most recent national title came when it hosted the event back in 2015, and it was one of the most memorable U Sports titles in the entire canon of the school’s Canadian crowns.

In its 100th year, UBC annexed its 100th national title by beating the rival Trinity Western Spartans 3-0 at Thunderbird Stadium.

That is once-in-a-lifetime kind of stuff, so no, UBC doesn’t have that kind of karma working in its favour.

Marisa Mastropieri (left) is one of two UBC Thunderbirds remaining from the team’s 2015 national championship season. The fourth-year redshirt helps her team open the playoffs this Friday in Saskatoon. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

Yet if you’re one for talisman symbolism, then this edition of the ‘Birds has more than enough mojo of its own, and it starts with its veteran core.

UBC’s top nine in terms of minutes-played are all third-, fourth- or fifth-year players, including seniors Amelia Crawford and Marisa Mastropieri, the team’s two remaining players from that 2015 national championship season.

“I really do like our mature, senior-types,” Symons added, speaking in general to fourth-years like keeper Emily Moore, midfielder Anisha Sangha, gutsy defender Emma Peckinpaugh whose season was cut short by yet another knee injury last week, and forward Alyssa Hunt, who as one of the most improved players in the nation, has led the team in scoring with seven goals and a pair of assists.

And for more than good measure, you can add fifth-year transfer Natasha Klasios, who over four years at Toronto was a scoring machine as a Varsity Blues forward.

Heading west to UBC to study towards a Master’s degree in zoology, Klasios has brought her technical skill set to the fore as a UBC midfielder.

Yet Symons isn’t speaking just to the tasks which lie ahead on the field, but to a wide-ranging one which defines the student-athlete experience in general.

“Veterans mean a lot to his team for a few reasons, first and foremost of which, UBC is a tough place at this time of the year,” he continues of a team that is also led by the likes of third-year players like forward Danielle Steer and midfielder Tess McRae, both a vital part of that top minutes-played core on the 2019 roster.

“This is the time of the year where they are writing their papers, getting in their final assignments, and so I think the organization of the more mature students allows them to not feel the stresses as much and also to be able to focus on their soccer, too. For the first- and second-year players, that can be a big stress.”

As one of the most improved players in the country, UBC’s Alyssa Hunt led the Thunderbirds in scoring over the Canada West regular season. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

And while four schools (No. 2-ranked, Trinity Western, No. 7-ranked Calgary, Saskatchewan and MacEwan) have earned the right to host play-in winners for Canada West Final Four berths on Sunday, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team more prepared to go out on the road an earn its spot than the UBC Thunderbirds.

From Aug. 11-18, a span of eight days to open their season, the ‘Birds hit the road and played five NCAA Div. 1 programs.

They may have gone 0-4-1 in the process, yet Symons wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

“Those NCAA programs have one (non-counting) exhibition each, and so you know they are going to be raring to go with their best foot forward,” the coach said. “I thought it served us so well, especially from a defensive perspective.”

Indeed, if you carry Symons’ sentiment into the Canada West regular season, that really did reveal itself as a truth.

UBC allowed just nine goals in 14 matches, the third-best mark in the conference, with five of those goals coming in two games (a 2-0 loss at TWU, an 3-1 loss at home to Victoria).

That added up to just four goals allowed in its remaining 12 contests.

And perhaps the most defining benchmarks set by a team defined by its defence and its ability to play on the road?

UBC was 5-1-1 in Canada West road games, and it was the only team to shutout both of the conference’s nationally-ranked teams, earning 0-0 draws against both Trinity Western and Calgary.

None of any of that matters without the ability to muster performance on the day, yet success will not happen without embracing opportunity.

“We hope the next few weeks can be exciting for our fans and our supporters,” says Symons. “We want to be in the conversation, and we want to be the team that jumps out on its front foot Friday against Lethbridge.”

UBC head coach Jesse Symons has seen his 2019 ‘Birds embrace the road and their prowess as a defensive power. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

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