By Kristy Koehler, November 20 2019—
The Dinos women’s soccer team had an incredible year that included a Canada West gold medal and a trip to the U Sports National Championships. Despite coming up short in a 0–1 loss to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in the championship game, the Dinos have plenty to be proud of.
On Nov. 2, in exactly the reverse of the national championship’s fortunes, the Dinos captured their second-ever Canada West title in program history, besting the Thunderbirds 1–0.
The emotional roller-coaster of a big win and then a big loss in such a short period of time took a toll on the women, but they remain confident and proud of the program’s achievements.
“It’s still pretty fresh,” said Amy Mikuska. “I personally at the moment still feel like we lost the championship — not like we won the silver. Looking at next season, we’ve been to a national final. We know how hard is it to get there and what it takes to get there. But this year was a huge accomplishment.”
Montana Leonard, whose hat-trick in the semi-finals sent the Dinos into the championship game, is keeping positive.
“We finished second in the country and that’s amazing,” she said. “At first, it’s hard to think about those things when a hard loss has just come. We still have to remember that we did a great thing this year.
“Canada West felt amazing. It was the first time in my career here that we’d won something big. I’m so excited to see the banner in the gym and know that it was our team responsible for that.”
Mikuska echoed that sentiment.
“It’s always great to be a part of that legacy,” she said. “Last year and this year were two big seasons for us and it will always be good to have your name as part of those record seasons.”
What’s most disappointing for the women, according to Leonard, is the fact that the win was so attainable. The Thunderbirds lone, game-winning goal wasn’t a spectacular one, according to Leonard, but one that she said the team should have seen coming.
“We were a bit tired and we kind of expected that we could win it,” she said. “We wanted it so bad that maybe we over thought it.”
Fatigue impacted the team last season too, partly due to the tight turnaround time between Canada West and the U Sports National Championships. Leonard says that, though they were better equipped this year to deal with it as a result of prior experience, it still played a role.
“Last year, we beat UBC in the semi-final to qualify for nationals and to go to the CanWest Final and we were down a man because we had gotten a red card. Emotionally, physically and mentally I know I was drained,” said Leonard. “We played the next day in the final and I honestly was so exhausted in the game that it was so difficult. Then we got to nationals and still it’s such a quick transition — we only had a day at home in between the two tournaments. This year, I think we felt more confident going into the final. I wasn’t as mentally fatigued so I think that was a big difference — we hadn’t spent so much emotion on the game before. Going into nationals we were more confident — we had actually won something before getting to the finals.”
Head coach Troye Flannery says there’s not much to be done about the scheduling.
“I’m still exhausted and I didn’t play any of the games,” he laughed. “The turnaround from Canada West to nationals is huge. You get home, you go again. Especially if you have that emotional high of winning Canada West.
“There’s very little we can do differently with respect to that turnaround time. You just have to convince yourself that you feel great, refreshed and energized.”
Flannery lauded strength and conditioning coach Olivia Mohtadi for keeping the women in the best shape possible in the transition. She’ll also be crucial next year. If the Dinos are in the same situation — which Flannery expects to be — the finals will be hosted in Cape Breton, a far more jet-lag inducing trip than this year’s jaunt to Victoria.
Is there anything the team is planning to change next year to secure the win? Leonard says it’s all about focus.
“Soccer is really important between the ears — it’s not always physical — you have to mentally prepare,” said Leonard. “I need to keep focusing on that and find the right mental state — that’s our best performance state. Troye always talks about that too. When you can find the right mental state, you can find the best performance state and that’s when you play your best game – I don’t think we did that the best in the UBC final.”
That it was UBC who bested them made the loss sting even more, said Leonard, not only because of the Dinos-Thunderbirds rivalry, but also because she originally hails from Richmond, BC.
“It’s harder to play against people you know, because they also know you and it makes you want it more. Losing to them was probably harder than losing to say, an eastern team. My best friend is actually on the UBC team so we didn’t talk after the game. But, I think we both understand that it’s just soccer and when I go home for Christmas, it’ll be fine,” she laughed.
Leonard, one of the top scorers in Canada West, was honoured this year as a Second Team All-Canadian, along with Mikuska.
“The best players in Canada get chosen by U Sports. It’s a very big honour,” said Leonard. “But, I don’t think I’d be able to do what I do without my team. Surrounding myself with all the other players is great and Troye is a great coach. I think it’s more a team award honestly. I wish we did win the whole thing because it would have felt better.”
Having an entire team to lean on, as well as a coach who knew just what to say, lessened the crushing blow of the loss.
“It was hard because we had an undefeated season but I think we just have to hold each other up,” said Leonard. “It’s hard and there’s nothing you can really say to make it better, especially at nationals, but just being there for each other and knowing each player and what they need is the best thing.”
Rookie team member Rachel Barlow said Leonard is an incredible teammate and a true leader.
“Montana got us all to come together to have a group hug, but we didn’t say much,” she said.
Mikuska took comfort in Flannery’s post-game speech.
“He knows what to say and when to say it, especially after a loss,” she said. “He doesn’t focus on the loss — he focuses on us and the positives of us as a group and us as individuals. He doesn’t dwell on it with us — he gives us something encouraging to think about.”
Flannery’s team thinks the world of him and that feeling is reciprocated tenfold.
“We didn’t get the job done on the final day but these young women are going to do special things in life,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them. If anybody has ever spent any time with any of them, they’re incredible. It’s by far the best group we’ve had and I’m talking about who they are as people. If you’re going to be a student-athlete at the University of Calgary you have to possess good character, you have to be a great student and you’ve got to be pretty good at your sport. We tick all three of those. Heads held high. I get the fact that this going to hurt a little, but what an incredible season.”
Not only are the Dinos an incredible soccer team, but there is tangible proof that they also exemplify what it means to be student-athletes. Eighteen of the team members are Academic All-Canadians.
“It’s really important for me to keep up with my academics,” said Mikuska. “Personally, I want to always be an Academic All-Canadian. That’s a goal of mine every year.”
“I’ll boldly suggest we are the number one academic soccer program in the country,” said Flannery.
Part of this year’s success was due to the team having experience with the pressures faced at the highest levels of varsity sport. The rookie players on the team had all won a national championship in youth soccer before joining the Dinos. They were well aware of what it meant to be under significant stress.
“We had a certain sense of calm through the chaos that is playoffs,” said Flannery.
As for next year, there will be very little turnover in the program. Only two players are graduating, as opposed to last year’s loss of five.
“You don’t replace players at this level — there’s so many intangibles. But you retool and we’ve got some people waiting in the wings to take those opportunities,” said Flannery.
Barlow is excited for her opportunity and is looking forward to her next four years with the Dinos.
“As Troye always says, we’re climbing a mountain and we just need to keep going and get to the peak and for me, I have four more years to try and win nationals.”