Despite the cancellation of university sport this year, there was still a lot for the Cougars to celebrate in 2020
By Zach Worden, Sports Editor
It feels like it has been so long since we last saw the Mount Royal University (MRU) Cougars take the court, field and ice that it’s easy to forget how special 2020 was for the athletic program at MRU.
With some teams winning their first-ever Canada West medals and others having their most successful regular seasons as members of U SPORTS, 2020 saw the Cougars establish themselves as a program to watch in the future.
With no 2020-21 competitions due to COVID-19, we are forced to wait and see what MRU’s top athletes can achieve once university sport returns. But, as 2020 comes to an end, let’s take a look back at the great year it was for the Cougars.
Unfortunately, the MRU soccer season takes place during the fall semester, so we didn’t get a chance to see either of the Cougars’ clubs take the pitch in 2020.
As for women’s volleyball, the team not only secured their first-ever berth to the U SPORTS National Championships, but they came away with the program’s first Canada West medal.
The team was led by second-year middle Nyadholi Thokbuom. Thokbuom made the jump to superstardom in 2019-20, becoming one of the top players in the country. She led the Canada West in hitting percentage, along with finishing fifth in blocks per set with a .386 percentage and 1.14 blocks respectively. For her efforts this year, she was named both a first-team all-star in the Canada West and a second-team All-Canadian.
Joining Thokbuom on the Canada West all-star teams were third-year setter Quinn Pelland and fifth-year outsider hitter Chantel Park. The pair were named to the Canada West second team for their contributions to the best women’s volleyball team in Cougars history.
A 21-3 regular-season record saw the Cougars finish with the second seed come playoff time. Their regular season positioning meant the team would host each round of the playoffs until the finals (should they make it there). Matched up with the seventh-seeded University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds, the Cougars hosted UBC at Kenyon Court and won the series two matches to one.
Advancing to the conference semifinals, the Cougars welcomed the third seed, University of Alberta (UofA) Pandas to Calgary. After splitting their regular-season series 1-1, the two teams split the first two games of their playoff matchup as well, forcing a winner-take-all game three with a berth to the national championships on the line. Despite the two teams’ even play throughout the year, the Pandas knocked off the Cougars to advance to the Canada West finals.
After losing to the UofA, the Cougars had to turn their attention to the bronze medal match, which was a one-game series, with the winner earning a trip to nationals. They faced the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack, a team the Cougars also split with during the regular season. But in the bronze medal match, the WolfPack was no match for MRU, as the Cougars swept the match three sets to none.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, their first trip to the national tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19.
The men’s volleyball team’s season looked a little different this year. They entered the year coming off their first trip to the national championships, where they were led by a veteran corps of players that mostly moved on following their appearance on the national stage.
With a new group leading the way, the Cougars struggled to find their top form but still remained competitive in the Canada West.
Fifth-year outside hitter Trent Mounter and rookie Chris Byam led the Cougars to the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. Mounter was a second-team all-star in the Canada West, while Byam was a member of the all-rookie team.
As the eighth seed, the Cougars had to make the trip to Langley to face off with perennial powerhouse and national championship favourite, the Trinity Western University Spartans (TWU). TWU lived up to the hype and swept the Cougars in straight sets, advancing to the conference semifinals.
For a young MRU team, the experience gained against the Spartans will be important to understand what it takes to compete against the best in the country.
For MRU’s best hoopers, 2For MRU’s best hoopers, 2020 was a year of development for both programs. Once the calendar flipped, the men’s and women’s teams were only able to take one win. Both teams had solid starts to the season but were unable to carry that success over to the new year.
The women’s program won its most games in a season since the 2014-15 campaign. Under new head coach Robyn Fleckenstein, the Cougars were able to finish two games short of a playoff spot, while seeing improvement across the board as a team.
Both the men’s and women’s teams had players named to the Canada West all-rookie team as Jenika Martens and Nate Petrone made big impacts in their first year wearing MRU blue.
Martens scored her season-high 27 points on Jan. 3 against the Thompson Rivers WolfPack, while she also grabbed 11 rebounds. Martens looks to be a presence in the paint for the Cougars for years to come.
For the men’s squad, 2020 saw multiple key players go down with injury, forcing young players like Petrone into the spotlight. The first-year guard proved to be one of the best shooters in the conference, knocking down nearly 47 per cent of his shots from behind the arc. Petrone scored double-digit points in every game but one after the calendar turned, showing his growth throughout the year as he adjusted to his newfound role on the team.
Both teams look to be on the upswing when they return to play and both will push for a spot in the Canada West playoffs.
Both Cougars’ hockey teams had a record-breaking year. The women’s team had the best playoff run MRU has seen, while the men’s team had their most successful regular season since joining U SPORTS.
The women’s team finished as the fourth seed in the regular season, meaning they would get to host the first round of the playoffs. In the opening round, they swept their namesake, the University of Regina Cougars, without allowing a goal.
They advanced to the conference semifinals where they were matched up with the University of Calgary Dinos. The three-game series was tight throughout and game three ended up going to overtime scoreless. The Cougars’ Breanne Trotter scored the game-winner, sending MRU to not only the Canada West championship but also the national championships in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
The Cougars eventually lost in the championships series to the University of Alberta, but the silver medal spot is the best finish any team at Mount Royal has ever achieved.
MRU’s magical run didn’t stop there. Going into nationals, the team was ranked seventh out of eight teams and was set to face the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) champion University of Toronto Varsity Blues. Coming in as an underdog, the Cougars were able to shock the world and knock off the Varsity Blues in a 2-1 overtime.
The next day, the championships were cancelled due to COVID-19. It’s too bad that we didn’t get to see the Cougars’ run come to an end one way or another, but the 2020 season will still be special for the best team in Mount Royal history.
The men’s squad also finished as the fourth seed in the Canada West. After finishing 18-10-1 in the regular season, the Cougars faced off with the UBC Thunderbirds. UBC ended up being the men’s version of MRU’s women’s team — they went on a huge run in the playoffs all the way to the national championships. Unfortunately for the Cougars, that run began on their home ice.
Despite losing a win-or-go-home game three on their home ice, MRU is set for success for years to come, as they only graduated one player and look to return even stronger in 2021.