Matt Gutsch, Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics
EDMONTON – The University of Alberta Golden Bears soccer team claimed their 11th Canada West title in program history thanks to a thrilling 2-1 (4:3) penalty kick victory over the UBC Thunderbirds on Sunday afternoon at Foote Field.
Alberta got penalty kick goals from Niko Saler, Ajay Khaba, Bruno Zebie and Noah Cunningham in the victory, while third-year 'keeper Connor James made a stop on UBC midfielder Jules Chopin in the shootout and fellow Thunderbird Kerman Pannu sailed UBC's last ditch attempt to tie the match over the bar. Lucas Reis, Luke Griffin and Titouan Chopin all scored from the penalty kick spot for the Birds.
It was Alberta's third consecutive playoff win this season, following 1-0 victories over the UBC-O Heat and Trinity Western Spartans in the Canada West quarter and semi-finals respectively.
Both Alberta and UBC will now advance to the 2016-17 national championship tournament to be hosted over the November 10-13 weekend by the University of Guelph. Alberta and UBC will join the host and OUA champion, the Guelph Gryphons, as well as the Cape Breton Capers (AUS champs), the UQAM Citadens (RSEQ champions), the OUA silver medalist York Lions, the OUA bronze medalist Toronto Varsity Blues and the AUS silver medalists, the Acadia University Axemen. The national championship tournament will get underway on Thursday, November 10th at 11:00 a.m. EST and will wrap up on Sunday, November 13th at 2:00 p.m. EST with the gold medal game.
James, a second team Canada West all-star this season, was the story line in the Canada West Final Four tournament for Alberta. The Golden Bears entered the tournament as the No.2 ranked team in the nation, as well as the second highest scoring team in conference play. Led by Ajeej Sarkaria, who scored a single season record 19 goals and 25 points this season, Alberta had one of the most feared offences in the country heading into the playoffs. But it was James who ended up pushing Alberta to their 11th conference title and first since 2010 when he dove to his left to stop Chopin's shot in the shootout. The Alberta 'keeper made a trio of saves in regulation time, including a back-to-back point blanks saves on shots by Titouan Chopin and Reis in the 26th minute. James also made seven saves in the Alberta goal during their 1-0 double OT win over Trinity Western in the semi-final on Saturday. In 16 starts for Alberta this season, James led Canada West in save percentage, with an .841 mark, while also sporting a miniscule 0.88 goals against average. He has given up just one goal against through three playoff games this season as well.
One day after playing the Spartans to double overtime, the Bears got off to a red hot start against UBC when Tolu Esan took a nice feed from Bears captain Tim Hickson, danced into the T-Birds 18-yard box and sent a chip shot over UBC goalie Chad Bush for the game's opening goal in the 7th minute.
The Bears managed to protect that lead across the first 45 minutes, but the Point Grey Squad found an equalizer in the 51st minute. Rookie midfielder Mackenzie Cole found himself completely unmarked inside the Alberta six-yard box and was picked out perfectly for a pin-point cross by Jules Chopin, and Cole made no mistake from in tight, burying the header past James for the 1-1 goal.
After neither team could find the winner in 90 minutes, UBC turned up the intensity in the first 15 minute OT session, directing four shots towards the Alberta goal which forced James to make a pair of saves. The level of play tapered off after that, although the Bears did generate some chances, including two shots on goal, in the second overtime session.
Once the teams reached penalty kicks, each team coolly traded goals as Saler, Reis, Khabra, who was the OT hero in the semi-final, Griffin, Zebie and Titouan Chopin all scored with ease. Cunningham, a second team conference all-star, buried his shot to put the pressure back on UBC, and that's where James made the stop on Jules Chopin. Alberta, with an opportunity to win the game outright, sent Sarkaria to the spot, but he was denied by Bush. The Birds, down to their last shooter, had to score to continue the penalty kicks, but Pannu lofted his attempt over the bar, giving the Alberta Golden Bears the conference title and trophy.
The 2016-17 full national championship schedule will be announced on Monday, November 7th at 7:30 a.m. MST.
Photo credit: Don Voaklander