Women’s soccer make history
By Davie Wong, Sports Editor
It feels like only a week ago I was watching this green squad take the field as a PACWEST squad for the first time. Since then, so much has changed. In reality, it’s only been a little more than a week since the team suffered a heartbreaking loss against their rivals, the VIU Mariners, in the PACWEST Provincial Championship gold medal game. Amongst the heartbreak, whispers of retribution arose. Although PACWEST gold had slipped through their fingers, there was still the chance for an even bigger reward. The chance to win a gold medal on the National stage was awarded to the Royals with their PACWEST silver medal, which granted them the PACWEST wildcard spot at the CCAA National Championships in Montreal.
With a week and a half to really prepare for the biggest tournament in many of these players’ lives, the team took some time to celebrate their individual accomplishments before heading into action. Mikayla Hamilton (PACWEST Goal-scoring Leader, and PACWEST All-Star) and Andrea Perrotta (PACWEST Player of the Year, and PACWEST All-Star) were named CCAA All-Canadians for the year of 2016 following their stellar season. The striker and attacking midfielder duo has been a consistent key in Chris Laxton’s success in the past few years, and Hamilton and Perrotta have done a fabulous job of taking over the mantle left by Marni McMillan and Danae Harding.
With awards dished out, and celebrations put on hold, the competition really began. From the start, it was always going to be a challenge for the Royals. Entering the tournament as the PACWEST wildcard, the team was seeded seventh, and faced off against the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) Ooks. These two teams have some history, having faced up against each other last year, when the Ooks triumphed over the Royals. The Ooks would go on to win silver last year. Needless to say, the Royals needed to be at the top of their game to take on the Ooks.
The Ooks dominated the ACAC conference with a heavy handed offence, having three of their forwards being named to the All-Conference team. However, their defence was a tad sub-par, and the counter stylings of the Royals gave striker Mikayla Hamilton a chance to grab her team the lead in the 13th minute, a goal she buried without a second thought.
The next point on the board wouldn’t be until the 63rd minute, where the Royals’ Sonali Dholliwar managed to put herself on the end of an Andrea Perrotta corner kick to give the Royals a two goal lead. With the lead established, the Royals managed to really dictate the tempo of the game, but could not hold back the CCAA’s Player of the Year, Kassy Jajczay, who slotted in a goal for the Ooks at the 76 minute mark to make it 2–1. From there, it was really about parking the bus, and holding the lead, which the Royals really did well. The Ooks had a couple looks to tie the game, but looks were really all they were as the defence and goalkeeper Alexa Gazzola made multiple game-changing moves to keep the lead. And just like that, after 90 minutes, the Royals had upset the third seed from the ACAC and were moving onto the semi-finals.
Next in line for them was yet another familiar face. This time, it was the team that had denied the Royals their bronze medal last year, and the hosts of the tournament, Indiennes d’Ahuntsic. However, this time around, it was the gold or silver medal on the line.
The first 45 minutes of the game featured the fastest bit of soccer either team has played. With opportunities coming left and right for both teams, it was a miracle neither team was able to score. Granted, that miracle came in the form of several acrobatic saves by Alexa Gazzola. However, in such a game, it’s hard to really save them all, and in the 84th minute, Indiennes d’Ahuntsic found their goal off a screened shot from Amina Koroghli during a scuffle in front on the net. One was all it took, and the Royals fell to the hosts in the gold medal semi-finals.
Bumped off the winners’ bracket, the Royals had some work to do before heading home. While gold was no longer an option, the team still had the chance to win bronze. First off, they needed a win in the bronze semi-final match. In their way was the GPRC Wolves. The Royals came into the game a bit flat footed, and the Wolves capitalized on it in the 28th minute. An offensive try by the Wolves’ Chelsea Fitzgerald resulted in a rebound, which Janai Martens simply tucked into the back of the net for the one goal lead. Limping off the field at half time, it can only be assumed that Chris Laxton gave his team a speech similar to that of Napoleon before the Battle of Waterloo.
The Royals squad that came back out onto the field after the break was inspired and a marvel to watch. It didn’t even take long for them to be rewarded for their work, as Mikayla Hamilton scored a trademark goal, beating the entire Wolves team from the first touch to start the half. The pressure didn’t stop there, or for the entire half actually. The constant barrage from the Royals was too much, and in the 84th minute, that pressure resulted in a good looking free kick opportunity given to the Royals. Captain Samantha Kell stepped up to take the kick and absolutely smashed it into the top left corner netting with authority. Up two goals to one, the Royals bid their time well, sitting on the ball at times, while still prodding for that insurance marker. It wouldn’t be needed, as the Wolves couldn’t make a chance with less than 10 minutes left to play, and the Royals moved on to the Bronze medal matchup.
Surprisingly enough, the team that awaited them there was none other than the NAIT Ooks. The Ooks were back for a second round, but this time, actual hardware was on the line. Finding their stride once again, the Royals came out swinging. It was a classic Royals’ play that gave them the lead in the 27th minute. A beautiful through ball for Mikayla Hamilton given to her by Andrea Perrotta, and a clinical finish from Hamilton, was all they needed to grab the lead. However, it wouldn’t be a finals performance if it wasn’t entertaining.
The Ooks found their equalizer early into the second half, with a goal being scored on the counter by Kaily Mohn. After a tense second half, it was fairly obvious that regulation would solve nothing. Moving on to extra time, the Royals had a couple great looks that could have given them the game, but looks were all they were. The Ooks had a couple as well, but Samantha Kell and Sarah Strelau let nearly nothing by them, while Alexa Gazzola swept up any deep through balls. After 30 minutes, the game was still tied at one, and we were headed to penalties.
The Nait Ooks were the first up to shoot. It was none other than the CCAA Player of the Year Kassy Kajczay up to open shooting. As she’s done likely a million times before, Kajczay placed her ball on the mark, took a couple of steps back, and took her shot at putting her team up. Reaching outstretched was Royals keeper Alexa Gazzola, who read the shot beautifully and got over to make the save.
With the lead in hand, it was up to Royals captain Samantha Kell to put the team ahead. As her shot went high and over the bar, everyone on the Ooks lineup let out a collective sigh of relief. Megan Loyns was next up to take the shot for the Ooks. With the game on a knife’s edge, Loyns knew a goal would make all the difference here. She ripped a shot into the mid-bottom left-hand side, and Alexa Gazzola was there to absorb the impact, keeping the ball out, and giving her team the lead once again.
The Royals’ second shooter was Madison Hendry, who had the opportunity to score the first goal of the shootout for her team. Stepping back from the mark, Hendry railed the ball into corner of the net, grabbing her team the one-goal lead.
With the game slipping away from them, Kaily Mohn stepped up to see if she could beat the BC keeper one more time. Unleashing a vicious howler that had the entire venue on its toes, Mohn was denied by the fingertips on Gazzola, who was just in position to make the save. In reply, the Royals sent out the PACWEST’s best goal scorer, and their standard penalty taker, Andrea Perrotta. Having scored every time she’s stepped up to the mark so far this season, Perrotta was all focus as she rifled a shot into the netting to give her team the two-goal lead.
Down two goals with two shooters left, the Ooks knew they needed a miracle. Sydney Doblanko came up to deliver that miracle for her team. In a do or die scenario, Doblanko became the first Ooks player to beat Gazzola from the mark, freezing her with a subtle move.
However, even that wasn’t enough, as the Royals had a chance to win it all with a single goal. With the chance to win Bronze within their grasp, many would expect Mikayla Hamilton out to take the shot, but instead it was the fullback, Sonali Dholliwar, who came out to take the kick. It was a tense buildup as Dholliwar lined up the ball on the mark. A season’s worth of work, all on this one shot. With nerves of steel, Dholliwar delivered a beauty that stunned even herself, as the realization that the team had just won on her shot hit her. The Royals flooded the field and piled upon their team, exuberant with the result.
The win gives the Royals their first bronze medal in the program’s history in just their second appearance at the National Championships, and their first ever medal. After soaking in the winning atmosphere, head coach Chris Laxton spoke about what it’s like to make history for the second year in a row. “It is a great feeling, no doubt about it. I’m mostly proud of the players and the coaching staff for seeing all of their hard work pay off. The student-athletes give up so much, so to have them come together like they did and to achieve so much is truly remarkable. Since our season turned around at Capilano on October 2nd, the players all owned their roles within the team and bought in to what we were doing. Every single one of them contributed to our success and I’m really happy for them.”
Coming in as the wildcard seed, the Royals were not expected to finish in the top four, let alone take home a medal. For Laxton, coming in as the wildcard seed made a huge difference. “It was a combination of that and having the experience which allowed me to make better decisions and see the forest through the trees, since this is an incredibly long and tough tournament, with potentially four games in four days. As for the players, apart from the PACWEST semi-final, we were underdogs all season. I truly believe we relished the moment and were not afraid of the programs, some of which were perennial power houses, we were competing against.”
At the end of the tournament, Alexa Gazzola and Sonali Dholliwar were awarded as CCAA National Championship tournament All-Stars. While Alexa’s presence has been well noted throughout the team’s season, Dholliwar has been a little more under the radar. She had a fantastic tournament, and was duly awarded for it. Laxton had high praise for the dynamic fullback. “Sonali was solid and was constantly intercepting passes and regaining possession. She was able to contain some very skilled players for many of our matches. She also scored our game winner in the quarter final from a set piece and scored the winning penalty in our bronze medal shoot out.”
The tournament bronze finish brings an end to the Royals’ soccer campaign. After a season where many of the players on this young team surprised everyone with their level of maturity, I’m excited for next fall, to see what this team has in store next year.