Soccer: York, TWU claim titles

The men's and women's soccer championships wrapped up last weekend with some very interesting results. In the men's tournament at Carleton University in Ottawa, the fourth-ranked York Lions claimed the title [CIS release] with a 1-0 victory over the Trinity Western Spartans. Third-ranked Montreal claimed the bronze, while unranked Laval was fourth.

The top-ranked Carleton Ravens again came up short when the chips were down: they finished third in the OUA playoffs thanks to a semi-final loss to Laurier, a slight improvement over last year when they were also top-ranked going into the OUA Final Four, but lost to Western and Queen's to finish fourth. This year, however, they managed to make it to the nationals thanks to their host berth, but again came up short, losing 4-1 in their first game to Laval. They rebounded with wins over Laurier and Dalhousie to finish fifth, but that's got to still be a disappointment for a very talented Ravens program that many had higher expectations for.

It's enlightening to compare the final coaches' poll to the eventual results. Three of the top six teams at the championships (Trinity, Laval and Dalhousie) didn't crack the final Top 10, while five of the teams in that poll couldn't get out of their conference playoffs (No. 2 UBC, No. 6 Toronto, No. 7 McGill, No. 8 UNB and No. 10 Saint Mary's). That suggests one of two things: either the coaches can't evaluate teams properly or there's a tremendous amount of parity in CIS soccer. From my experience watching the league, I lean toward the second view. It's important to remember that soccer is an upset-heavy game thanks to its low-scoring nature, but I'd still argue that there's a lot of parity among at least the top 15 or 20 programs. Supporting that view is how the two teams playing in the national championship both finished second in their own conference playoffs and the OUA champion Laurier Golden Hawks and Canada West champion University of Victoria Vikes finished in a tie for dead last at the nationals.

The other curious subtext on the men's side is that both programs from the final ran into some adversity during the regular season. York forfeited four games thanks to the use of an ineligible player (Andrea Lombardo of Toronto FC fame), but recovered to win the OUA West by three points. Trinity had four players arrested [this blog] on a trip to Oregon, and it looks like all involved were kicked off the team [Maggi Hall, Mars Hill Online (Trinity Western student newspaper)] as I predicted [Sporting Madness]: the Mars Hill article mentioned they were appealing, but I haven't been able to find anything on the appeal results, and none of them are listed on the team roster or the roster from the championship game, so I'm guessing they weren't allowed back onto the team. Whatever you think of the decision to kick those players off the team, it's impressive that the remaining guys were able to get it done without them (and actually improve on last year's results: they finished second in Canada West instead of first but second nationally instead of fifth).

As a side note, I was pretty impressed to find two of my high school soccer teammates on the Trinity roster: defender Brayden Volkenant and goalkeeper Josh DiMaapi. Nice to know that some guys from that team were able to go on with high-level soccer.

On the women's side, Trinity took full advantage of hosting the championships and came up with the win, beating the Brock Badgers 1-0 in the final. Gary Ahuja, my colleague from the Langley Times, has a great story on the championship match here (complete with a quality video by Times photographer John Gordon, a man who knows his footy better than almost anyone), and complete coverage of all the games here.

The women's tournament also showed the predictive ability (or lack thereof) of the Top 10 polls. Trinity was ranked sixth heading into the tournament, while OUA bronze medalist Brock didn't even crack the Top 10. First-ranked Montreal did decently, giving their school a sweep of the soccer bronze medals with a 2-0 win over Victoria, but things weren't so rosy for many of the other ranked teams: No. 5 UBC, No. 7 Sherbrooke, No. 9 Memorial and No. 10 York all failed to make it to the championships, while unranked Brock and Dalhousie snuck in.

In the tournament itself, the defending national champion No. 2 Cape Breton Capers finished in a tie for last with Dalhousie, while No. 3 Ottawa finished sixth and OUA champion No. 8 Laurier finished fifth. I saw Ottawa's 1-0 win over Queen's [myself, Queen's Journal] in the OUA quarterfinals, and given how close that was, it's not farfetched to think there isn't a huge gap between the teams at nationals and some of the ones that couldn't even crack their conference final four. We saw this last year with the out-of-nowhere championship by the host Capers, and to a lesser degree this year with the unlikely final between TWU and Brock. That parity on both the men's and women's side is probably good for the state of CIS soccer: if unlikely teams can win it all, it's worthwhile for schools to put money into maintaining these programs, as the stars might someday align and give them a banner.

There's another odd personal connection on the women's front too. Trinity rookie striker Nikki Wright picked up an incredible collection of hardware this year, earning the unusual double of Canada West MVP and Rookie of the Year. She also picked up [Gary Ahuja, Langley Times] the CIS Rookie of the Year, thanks to her Canada West-leading 12 goals. Strangely enough, I happened to profile her this summer while I was filling in for Gary at the Times sports section [note: link is to the Vancouver Whitecaps site, which picked up the story thanks to her time with them: I can't find the archived piece on the Times site at the moment]. I figured she was going to be a pretty good player, given that she'd already played for the Whitecaps' full women's squad (which is pretty elite, boasting names like Tiffeny Milbrett and Amy Vermeulen even when their normal stars like Christine Sinclair and Kara Lang are off on national team duty), but I certainly didn't expect to see her take home the Canada West MVP in her first year. Perhaps the famed "Sager Bump" has rubbed off on me.

All in all, those were a couple of very entertaining championships. Kudos to Streaming Sports Network Canada for webcasting the games: it's great to see university soccer get some national coverage. Also, Mark Masters did an excellent job of finding some of the great soccer stories on his SSN blog: definitely worth a read. We'll see how things go next year, but these championships speak well for the state of the university game in my mind.
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