Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – The result was a predictable one, if you believe Canada West coaching polls, as No. 2 Alberta beat No. 13 MacEwan by a 2-0 count in the regular season opener for both teams on Saturday at Clarke Stadium.
However, watch the tape and analyze the statistics, and it's clear the match could have gone either way.
Both teams had seven shots on net and traded chances throughout the contest, but it was Alberta who scored – Noah Cunningham in the sixth minute and Matthew Miki in the 63rd.
The Griffins had several Grade A chances, but were stymied by Alberta's terrific fifth-year goalkeeper Connor James, who earned the clean sheet.
"We had two breakaways and a crossbar," said Griffins head coach Adam Loga. "We had some chances to put away, but we came up short. Set piece against and here we are.
"Connor's a great keeper," he added. "You'll notice he plays high off his line. When his back four were up, he intercepted a couple of through balls. He had a great game."
James was particularly great late in the second half when he robbed MacEwan rookie Tyrell Leslie twice.
"It's fortunate we have Connor," said Alberta head coach Len Vickery. "We don't have too much fifth-year content in the team right now. We rely on him particularly when things are not quite coming together in front of him.
"I think he gives everyone confidence, both the coaching staff and his teammates in front of him. We know he can make those kinds of saves."
Star striker Ajeej Sarkaria – the 2016 Canada West player of the year – had two assists to pace an Alberta offence that scored once in each half.
In the sixth minute, a free kick from 30 yards out was sent into the box and Sarkaria got a header on it, moving it over to Cunningham, who unlit a cracker into the left top corner from in tight.
In the 63rd minute, Sarkaria again got the helper when he cut through the Griffins defence and chipped it over to Miki, streaking in from the left, and he buried it past MacEwan goalkeeper Seth Johnstone.
Johnstone later robbed Sarkaria on a clean break – one of five saves in his Griffins' debut.
"When things are going tough, just as we're talking about Connor at the back being essential, having Ajeej up front holding up the ball, bringing in other players and particularly being a threat around the goal, getting points, it's always good to have those quality players in your lineup," said Vickery.
Rookie Everett Orgnero led the Griffins with three shots on goal, while many other newcomers also impressed. In short, there's plenty for MacEwan to build off of as they prepare for their next game at Lethbridge on Sept. 1.
"I think you build off of it with belief," said Loga. "With this young group and the success a team like that across from us has had over the years, the fact we played with them and actually put them under for the fair share of the game, I think that creates some belief within the room that yes, we're young, but we have a great thing going here that we can build off of."
Alberta, meanwhile, will next head to Saskatchewan on Sept. 1.
"All credit to MacEwan," said Vickery. "They played well. They were well put together. I think from our perspective we've got a bit of work to do, particularly if we're going to challenge for the upper part of Canada West. There's lot of work to be done, but we've got a good squad of players and I think we can get there eventually."