The University of Manitoba is set to host the U SPORTS Women's Soccer Championship tournament November 9-12. To celebrate, Canada West is looking back at the conference's previous women's soccer national champions. We start our journey with the 2015 UBC Thunderbirds.
Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON – The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds entered the 2015 season as hosts of the Women's Soccer National Championship tournament having captured the Gladys Bean Memorial Trophy on five prior occasions – as many as any team since nationals were first held in 1987.
Their triumphs had come across the map – Victoria, Edmonton, Montreal – but not in Vancouver.
In fact, over nearly three decades, just once had the host team won the title.
Such a rare feat is what the T-Birds were chasing, though only by happenstance.
"Winning the national championship is all we wanted," says All-Canadian UBC forward Jasmin Dhanda. "We never really thought about the location or making history, we just wanted to win that national title. We didn't really think about anything else around that."
To whatever degree it may have crossed the T-Birds' minds, home turf would play a special role in UBC's record sixth and most recent national championship. Before so many who had been so supportive for so long, the T-Birds defeated Trinity Western at Thunderbird Stadium in one of the most emotional nights the Canadian women's university soccer championship has ever seen.
"I vaguely remember it, but when I look at pictures, I'm like, 'Oh wow, that's how it really was,'" Dhanda says. "At that final whistle everyone ran in together and we knew, 'Oh yeah, we finally did it.' Even standing there waiting to get our medals was super-exciting. There's no words to really describe what that feeling was, and seeing my family and friends in the stands was probably one of the best moments of my life."
From the first kick of the 2015 Canada West regular season, through those moments that gold was hung around their necks, UBC was undefeated at Thunderbird Stadium, where a buzz built as nationals approached and the T-Birds emerged as serious contenders.
"As we started winning games and we went on a winning streak, we definitely had more people … come out and support us because they looked at our record and they knew we were doing so well," Dhanda says.
"We'd be walking around campus and (other students) would be asking about our games and how we were doing, and they were super excited knowing we were doing so well."
UBC was No. 9 in the first national ranking of the season, and actually fell out of the Top 10 altogether in Week 2. By the second week of October they had climbed all the way up No. 4, after a stretch of six consecutive wins.
"At the beginning of the season we were not one of the top teams, but going into every game we just gave it our best," Dhanda says. "We would hope for the best outcome, we didn't go into any game expecting to win. I think that's what made a really big difference.
"Every game we knew was going to be a challenge, so we went out there and left everything on the field and that's how we got the best result. It's not necessarily always the best teams that win, it's the teams that gives it their all."
The T-Birds ended their schedule atop the Canada West standings with an 11-1-2 record. After beating Thompson Rivers 6-1 in a quarter-final at Thunderbird Stadium, UBC headed to the Canada West Select Six, hosted by the University of Saskatchewan.
In stark contrast to conditions back home, UBC was greeted by early signs of winter in Saskatoon. Facing their greatest adversity yet, the T-Birds gutted out a pair of 1-0 wins, over Calgary in the semifinal and Trinity Western in the final, to become Canada West champs for the first time since 2006.
"That was the first banner that (our group) had won, so it was super exciting," says Dhanda, who was in her second year. "Honestly in that moment it felt like we had won the national championship, but once that was over, we realized now the real focus is the national title that we needed to win.
"But that was still a great feeling. Going into it, the weather was freezing and it was not the best surroundings or the best field, but we got through it. We pushed hard and we won that banner."
Returning to the friendly confines of Thunderbird Stadium for nationals, UBC would not be denied. The T-Birds got better as competition wore on, first beating Calgary 1-0 in the quarter-final, then downing Sherbrooke 2-0 in the semifinal. Against Trinity Western, the T-Birds took control with an early 2-0 lead and enjoyed an insurmountable three-goal advantage for a good chunk of the second half.
The latter moments of that match were a countdown to coronation for the T-Birds, rendered unforgettable by the electricity permeating from the stadium seats. Dhanda, a native of Surrey in Metro Vancouver, had some 50 relatives and friends in attendance.
"As soon as we were given the banner and trophy, I ran into the stands into my family and just saw the smiles on all their faces," says Dhanda, who received the Gunn Baldursson Memorial Award as tournament MVP. "While I was playing on the field I really couldn't see who was there supporting me, but once I got there, I knew pretty much every single one of my family members was there…I felt so thankful for that."
Far fewer T-Birds supporters were on hand at nationals last year in Wolfville, N.S., where Laval dethroned UBC with a 2-1 win in the final. The travel distance for UBC fans won't be quite so far this fall when the University of Manitoba hosts the 2017 U SPORTS Women's Soccer National Championship, Nov. 9 -12 in Winnipeg. And with visions of 2015 etched in their minds, the T-Birds aim to be there.
"It's still the same excitement when I go back and think about (winning the championship)," Dhanda says. "It's hard to put into words how it made me feel, and it just makes me want to win another championship because that feeling is one of the greatest I've had in my life.
"That feeling of success and accomplishment is just awesome and you look forward to being even better and winning another championship after you experience that the first time."
More on the U SPORTS Women's Soccer Championship:
For the first time ever, the University of Manitoba is set to host the U SPORTS women's soccer national tournament, as the event travel to Investors Group Field November 9-12.
Tournament ticket packages, as well as single game tickets can now be purchased by clicking here.