Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Needing a win in their regular season finale to make the playoffs, Thompson Rivers University came out flying, scoring the opening goal at Clarke Stadium on Sunday.
It wouldn't last.
MacEwan poured on piles of pressure in the second half, tying the game and coming close multiple times to winning it before the whistle sounded on a 1-1 draw between the Canada West women's soccer opponents.
Despite netting a point, TRU's fate was sealed with UBC-Okanagan and UNBC left playing each other in Prince George, B.C. on Sunday afternoon in a two-way battle for the final playoff spot in the Pacific Division (UNBC won 1-0 to nab it).
"We've had an all-in mentality all year," said WolfPack head coach Kelly Shantz, his voice cracking with emotion after coming so close to the post-season.
"We're super young. We're probably the youngest team in Western Canada, if not the country. It's been a fight. We play in such a tough conference with MacEwan and so many tough teams. We were 1-7 at the turn and the fight in the last 3-4 weeks – the last eight games with this team – has been off the charts. I just thought it was a terrific 90 minutes – two good teams fighting it out.
"It stings right now. It stings hard."
Rookie WolfPack striker Chantal Gammie scored her team-leading seventh goal of the season in the 40th minute when she busted through MacEwan's defence onto a loose ball and sent a wicked blast past Emily Burns.
"I thought we were playing a team that was desperate," said MacEwan head coach Dean Cordeiro, whose team could do no better or worse than third in the Pacific Division regardless of the result. "They were playing for their playoff lives. They needed to win. We knew that we were kind of penciled into the No. 3 spot with the Fraser Valley-UBC tie last night, so maybe that got to our girls' heads a little bit and we didn't come out as we had hoped.
"Credit Kelly. He's done a great job with their group. I think they're a completely different team the second half of the season and their record indicates that. They were in it right to the end."
The Griffins nearly tied the game in the 43rd minute when Salma Kamel had a partial breakaway, but the defender recovered on her first touch and she didn't get all of a blast that TRU goalkeeper Danielle Robertson dove to stop.
Kamel had another break in the 47th but couldn't beat Robertson. Moments later, TRU nearly regained the lead when Marlie Rittinger had a marvelous touch to dust a defender at the top of the box but sent her offering off the outside of the right post.
"Marlie had a chance there early in the second half that I think I'd give her 20 times and 17 times it's going to go in," said Shantz. "That's just kind of been a subtext on the season."
After multiple chances to tie the game, the Griffins finally did in the 74th minute when Jamie Erickson sent a dart to rookie Maya Morrell, who spun around a defender at the top of the box and levelled a gorgeous strike inside the far post.
"It seems similar throughout the season whenever we've conceded a goal … the response within the group has been great," said Cordeiro.
MacEwan had multiple chances to win the game late in the contest and were unlucky not to get a better result.
Megan Lemoine and Raeghan McCarthy had late shots from in tight that Robertson stopped before somehow the ball stayed out on the final play of the contest – a scramble off a corner-kick with a defensive save on the line, followed by Erickson chipping it over the bar.
"I'd have to check the film, but I can't even believe some of those close calls towards the end," said Cordeiro. "We had three, four or five that looked like they were going to be in the back of the net, but that's the way it is sometimes. That's the game."
MacEwan will finish the season at 9-3-2 – the program's best record since joining Canada West in 2014. They will stay in Edmonton for the first round of the playoffs, set to host Prairie #6 Regina on Oct. 26 at Foote Field. The winner will meet Prairie #2 Alberta for a spot in the Final Four.
TRU, meanwhile, finishes 3-9-2 – seventh in the Pacific. Although they'll miss the playoffs, they have plenty of things to build off of.
"We're not really any different in the standings than we were last year," said Shantz. "We're fighting for a playoff spot. But last year everything was a fight. We had to scramble to barely inch by another team.
"We're a good team now," he noted. "These are results we deserved not that we're fighting for and scrapping tooth and nail and hoping for a bounce here and a piece of luck there.
"That will carry with us into the off-season, into next year with a young team. We didn't just get lucky and not make the playoffs; we were actually unlucky not to is more the feeling."