Rich Abney, UNBC Timberwolves
VANCOUVER – It was the type of matchup that is reserved for the high stakes of playoff soccer, as the UNBC Timberwolves women's soccer team edged the Manitoba Bisons on penalty kicks to advance in the Canada West playoff bracket.
Competing at UBC, for a chance to play the Thunderbirds in the next round, both the Bisons and TWolves played an inspired match with chances at both ends of the pitch.
After a scoreless first half, it was UNBC that got on the board first. In the 70th minute, Paige Payne sent a corner kick into the box that was eventually located by defender Mara McCleary. The elite centreback made no mistake from in close, beating a helpless Madison Wilford to make it 1-nil.
The Bisons proved to be plenty resilient, however, generating a number of chances around TWolves keeper Brooke Molby before breaking through in the 76th minute. A slight hesitation in the UNBC defensive third led to a scramble and Hailey Lavarias was there to draw her team even.
"They scored from the corner, but rather than hang their heads, our team came back stronger to score that goal," said Bisons coach Vanessa Martinez Lagunas. "We were able to manage it all the way to the end, so I am so proud of my team."
With both teams understanding what was on the line, the tension was palpable the rest of the way. When regulation time solved nothing, the two sides competed in a pair of back-and-forth 15 minute overtime periods. The best chance came off the foot of UNBC freshman Sarah Zuccaro who got a great crack on it from 18 yards out, but had her shot just miss wide.
The game would be decided by penalty kicks, as both sides identified their five selected shooters.
"It took me back to youth, honestly. I had to do a lot of PKs in youth, so it felt kind of routine for me," said Molby postgame. "I expected it. I try to watch their eyes, and what they do."
UNBC's Payne, who scored eight goals to pace the TWolves this season, opened the PK's by beating Wilford. Manitoba could not answer, as Amanda Wong pulled her attempt just wide.
Round 2 saw the Bisons even it up. The Timberwolves' Hannah Emmond saw her attempt just sail over the crossbar, before Manitoba's Holly Angus blasted one top corner past an outstretched Molby.
UNBC fifth-year Madison Emmond was next to the spot, sneaking one under Wilford, who did well to guess correctly, but unable to fully close the door. Machaela Burdeny saw her shot go north of the crossbar, putting the Timberwolves in a good spot heading into the fourth round.
UNBC coach Neil Sedgwick called on freshman Zuccaro, to step up in a high-pressure situation. He must have known something about Zuccaro's ability to focus, as she made no mistake, putting her shot just under the crossbar, and putting the pressure on the Bisons. Manitoba looked to Michaila Pilcher, but Molby got her fingertips on the ball, enough to tip Pilcher's attempt over the net.
"It's crazy. We didn't think we were going to be here a couple days ago, and here we are winning," said Molby. "We are through, and everyone is so happy. It is crazy."
"Full credit to UNBC. Penalty kicks are a coin toss, but they did great," said Martinez Lagunas. "The game was competitive, with it going back-and-forth. This is probably the best game both teams played this season."
The victory was a historic one for the Timberwolves, marking the first Canada West playoff victory in program history. With the win, they earn a date with the top-ranked UBC Thunderbirds on Sunday, October 28.
"We have to reset for UBC and focus," said a smiling Molby. "We have to stick to our mindset, and I think we can bring a good battle."
PHOTO: Rich Abney/UNBC Timberwolves