Undefeated Ooks take home ACAC gold
Playing for gold, glory and a ticket to nationals in Quebec meant stakes were high when the Mount Royal University Cougars squared off against the NAIT Ooks in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference finals on Oct. 30.
MRU came into the crucial match with the hopes of ending the team’s competition in the ACAC on a high note, as the group will be moving up to compete in the Canada West league next year. Meanwhile, NAIT rode into the game hoping to advance, and keep hold of their perfect record by winning one final match against MRU.
It was a single corner kick that made all the difference, and in the end it was the Ooks who emerged victorious, beating the Cougars by a score of 1-0.
“We just started a little bit too slowly,” lamented MRU player of the game Monica Neilson. “They had many chances off of corner kicks, just one too many chances.”
The Cougars had the home field advantage, but NAIT had the elements on their side in the first half, with a strong wind whipping towards the MRU net.
Nerves were evident and both teams started off the game with anxious, jumpy touches on the ball. NAIT was quick to gain composure, putting pressure on the Cougar defence with a string of powerful shots from outside of the 18-yard box.
Just when it appeared the Ooks had scored, Cougars’ centre-back Monica Neilson lunged in action, clearing the ball into space and diffusing the dangerous situation.
The Cougars continued to battle, keeping the Ooks largely outside of the 18-yard box, but a goal-hungry NAIT offence forced MRU to concede a succession of corner kicks. NAIT drove each kick into the box with precision, and the Cougars responded by tightening up their defence, crowding the box with more players in an attempt to clear well-placed corner kicks.
More Cougars inside the box for defence during corner kicks meant that when NAIT attacker Laura Kautz was passed the ball on a short corner — while hovering outside of the box — she was unmarked and had extra space to work with. Kautz took a shot from outside of the 18-yard box, the ball flew through a mess of players and past the keeper, into the top left-hand corner of the net at the 24-minute mark.
Though the Ooks were in the lead, things were looking up for the Cougars at the 38-minute mark when top-scoring attacker Karlee Hodl blew past Ook defence into a one-on-one situation with NAIT keeper Tara Evans.
Evans stepped up to the play to deflect the first shot, and a bouncing rebound put Hodl in front of an empty net. Hodl fired off a second shot, but a NAIT defender managed to redirect the ball with the tip of her foot just before the ball rolled past the goal line.
With the wind at their backs and a number of changes made to the starting line, the Cougars were a very different team in the second half of the game. They generated chances in the Ooks’ end, but Cougar play often appeared laborious against a rock-solid NAIT defence.
The Ooks’ physical style of play also had an impact on the game, with concrete midfielders often winning possession by knocking MRU players off of the ball. In the end, MRU played with fierce and scrappy determination, but NAIT played with the poise, grace, and confidence of an undefeated team.
The second half was scoreless, and ACAC gold went to the Ooks.
“I asked the girls to battle and I asked them to compete, and I think they really did that today, as a young team and with the inexperience, I think that’s very positive.”
Like Fusco, Cougars’ team captain Janelle Carbert showed respect for the calibre of her opponents.
“They’re big, they’re very fast and they’re quick on their feet,” said Carbert. “It was hard to find weaknesses in individual players that you could capitalize on because they’re so comfortable playing with each other.”
For Carbert, the heartbreaking loss comes with a silver lining — the Ooks defeated the Cougars by a whopping score of 7-0 in the 2011 pre-season, and Carbert believes the narrowing of score margins between the final match and the pre-season game is a testament to just how far her team has come.
“The Cougars battled hard today” said a dejected Carbet, “I’m proud that we gave NAIT a good run.”
The Ooks will head to the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association nationals in Quebec City, where they will compete for the national title at Collège Francois-Xavier-Garneau from Nov. 9-12.