The toughest soccer division in Canadian Interuniversity Sport had their playoffs Nov. 4-5 in Edmonton, and the University of Calgary Dinos men's team earned their spot after a grueling season.
The Dinos opened the weekend Saturday with a 1-0 upset over the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, and then ended their weekend with a disappointing 4-1 loss at the hands of the Trinity Western University Spartans.
Coming into Saturday's game, the T-Birds were ranked fourth in the nation and had only lost two games all year. In two previous match-ups, the Dinos and T-Birds drew 0-0 in Calgary, and the Dinos lost 3-0 to the T-Birds in B.C. However, the 3-0 loss was rather meaningless as the playoff standings had already been decided, and both teams did not play their top players.
Out of the gate it was all Dinos, with the Dinos receiving the bulk of the early chances including one in the 11th minute, when Dino striker Brandon Gerritsen forced the T-Bird keeper to make a stellar foot save after breaking through the defensive line. As the half ticked on, the chances gradually began to swing UBC's way. The T-Birds had several opportunities deep in the Dinos zone, but were unable to make anything of them. A corner was awarded to UBC in the 31st minute. They took the ball short to their man just outside the box, who then fired the ball across the goal mouth and out of bounds.
After many failed opportunities for both teams to put one in the onion bag, the score read nil-to-nil at the 45th minute.
"This division, [from the first placed team to the sixth] are about fifty-fifty games, and even [the seventh and the eighth ranked teams] are very difficult," said head coach Andy Gibbs. "[The University of Alberta] has an unbeaten record, but they could've been beaten by four or five teams this year. You walk out at half time and you think this could've been an even game, in some form."
With the score even, the game had the feeling that the first team to get one in would win it. After coming painstakingly close with a ball off the post fired by fifth-year Dino Adam Onulov, the Dinos finally wiped one of the circles off the score sheet. On a throw-in deep in the T-Birds' half, Ryan Holbrooke headed the ball off the crossbar. The ball bounced to Matthew Deeprose, who tickled the twine and put the Dinos up 1-0.
"My job is to win every ball in the air," said Holbrooke, a second-year Haskayne business student. "Off the throw, I threw off a defender. [The ball] may have deflected off him. Deeprose was on the keeper, that was our game plan off the throw."
Holbrooke came on as a substitute for Gerritsen at the start of the second half.
"Gerritsen really likes going forward," said Gibbs. "[With him on], I'm trying to drive the team forward. He's not as tactical as some of the other players. He wants to go forward, he wants to go forward, he wants to go forward. We set that tone that we want to go forward but then I bring Holbrooke to win the air-battles, to battle with big guys and to be very difficult to manage."
With the lead, the Dinos kept the pressure on the T-Birds, missing several opportunities to build a two to nil advantage including a two-on-one opportunity in the 75th minute which resulted in Dinos half-back Mazin Tabsh firing a shot wide of the net.
As the clock wound on, the T-Birds became more and more frantic to tie it, as the action reached a fevered pace with five minutes remaining.
"You only have one goal in the last five minutes, it's to get the ball out," said Holbrooke. "Everyone's kicking it as hard as they can up the field. You want to clear your zone, you don't want to give them chances. No one wants to lose in the last five minutes, right?"
The Dinos managed to hold on, cheered on by the chants of "Go Dinos Go!" by the dozen or so faithful in the crowd who braved the negative temperatures to enjoy a superb soccer match.
"The boys did a really good job, I didn't have too much to do," said rookie keeper J.P. Crescenzi, who recorded his seventh shutout of the season in the game. "We played a good disciplined game, we kept our structure really well. We were tougher than them, we won all the balls."
The Dinos patiently awaited the results of the University of Alberta Golden Bears/Spartans game. If the Bears won, the Dinos would automatically qualify for the nationals. However, if the Spartans won, the Dinos would need a win on Sunday to carry them through.
"How do you cheer for U of A except in something you need?" said Gibbs. "I want something out of it, so 'Come on U of A. 10 nil. Get full of yourself.'"
Unfortunately, the Bears did not hold up their end of the deal, dropping a 2-0 decision to the Spartans.
Things looked good going into Sundays match against the Spartans. In two previous matches, the Dinos had beaten them 1-0 twice.
"You know we were coming out expecting to win," said the fifth-year Onulov. "We knew it would be a tough game, we just figured we'd beat them twice before, we can do it a third time. We knew we could, we just weren't in it for some reason."
The game was sealed early. By the 25th minute, the Spartans had already amassed a three goal lead. The Dinos came out looking sluggish, giving up too much space to the Spartans' skilled forwards.
"For ten minutes in the middle of the first half, they pounced on two chances," said Gibbs. "We can't give up those chances, we play very tight. The funny thing is, we must've had four or five goal-mouth skirmishes and we didn't get a poke in to put it onto the net. That set the tone for the game."
The scoreline was 3-0 at the half, and the Dinos' hopes for a berth in the nationals were all but gone. Coach Gibbs tried a three substitute shake-up to change the pace of the game, and it seemed to work early. Subbed on at the half again, Holbrooke picked up the Dinos' first goal of the game, making the game 3-1 in the 48th minute. But the game was put out of reach with the Spartans' fourth goal in the 67th minute.
"We were pretty high after yesterday's win, maybe we just weren't focused at the beginning," said fifth-year Dinos team captain Adam MacDonald. "We came out flatfooted, they took it to us, and we just couldn't respond right away. Once one went in, two and three were right afterwards. We were kind of shocked. By the time we started getting going, it was almost too late."
"We all believed we could come back," added Onulov. "When we were down 3-0 at half, we kept it positive in the dressing room. We got that early one, and [we were] motivated again. We had a couple chances that just wouldn't go in for us. As the game wore on, they started to regain their composure on their side, and weren't back on their heels as they were for the first couple minutes. When they got that fourth one, it was at that point maybe out of reach."
This is both Onulov's and MacDonald's last season of eligibility.
Another season, another close call. Last year the Dinos lost out in the bronze medal match after being a surprise participant in the playoffs, and this year the Dinos got all the way to the championship game. The Dinos have improved consistently over the last few years, and it shouldn't be long before they finally pick up their first division championship since 1980.
"Since [Onulov and I] started in the Dinos, we've improved every single year," said MacDonald. "This [year we had] the most wins since we've been here. This is the first time we've earned a real spot in the conference finals. [The team] have to take it that one step further, and believe they can win it when it comes down to that final game."