Cougars on the prowl: Winter is coming, Cougar Athletics begin seasonal grind
By Dan Khavkin, Sports Editor
With the month of October drawing to a close, the Canada West soccer regular season concludes with both men’s and women’s teams making the final playoff.
Both men’s and women’s Cougar squads have qualified for the fourth consecutive year but neither side have made it past the quarter-final round in the soccer program’s history.
MRU finishes with a 5-8-1 record, a higher win total, but lower point total than that of last seasons 4-4-6 but secured enough points to secure the final spot in the Prairie Division.
After a strong early semester start for the men’s team, a rather pedestrian end to the season helped the Cougars clinch onto the last playoff spot for the second straight year.
This year’s team was formed around a mixture of rookies and veteran talent. After losing the team’s engine Justin Anderson-Louch in the first weekend, the Cougars began to show a huge loss in leadership as they only managed to hold a 3-4 record by the midway point. The second half of the season saw the Prairie Division turn into a warzone for the playoff picture, as it usually does.
With first place Alberta manhandling all opposition with an undefeated season, the Prairie Division’s playoff teams have below .500 records.
All the Cougars needed was to stay with the mix and they did just that. In a must win weekend set against both Edmonton schools University of Alberta and MacEwan, MRU snatched the three points needed to secure a berth in the quarter-finals.
The Cougars finish the regular season with their best since the transition to U SPORTS with a 6-6-2 record. The team ranked fourth out of six, being only one point behind the third spot in their division.
MRU ladies had a phenomenal start to their chase for the Canada West title, beginning the opening half of the season by winning five of seven games and reached a high-water mark: a five game unbeaten run.
The latter half of the season however wasn’t smooth sailing. Going up against the toughest competition in the schedule, MRU dropped four of six decisions picking a mere four points in the process, dropping below .500 for the first time all season in that stretch. That being said, the Cougars were pitted up against both first and second placed divisional opponents in Alberta twice and Calgary once, along with games against the stronger Pacific Division opposition in UFV and first ranked nationally Trinity Western.
After a trip to the States during reading break, the Cougars came back to Canada West action against UBC for their first road-trip of the season but got swept at the hands of a high flying T-Birds squad who started the season at 4-0 with the sweep of MRU.
The following weekend, the Cougars hosted the first half of a home-and-home series against the defending national champion Alberta Golden Bears, who have won nine of 10 meetings dating back to 2015.
The Cougars looked for revenge after getting ousted in the semi-finals last season but fell short in overtime both nights. To add insult to injury, during the rubber match in Edmonton, MRU had a lead late in the third but got a penalty in the final two minutes and couldn’t hold back a six-on-four powerplay. The game got sent to the extra frame where Alberta ended the game with a 3-2 win.
As painful of losses these were for the boys in blue, picking up points are a huge confidence boost early on and especially against Alberta of all teams. MRU have not won a meeting against the Golden Bears since October of 2015 so being just a few plays away from two wins against a formidable opponent should be something the Cougars can build on moving into the busy winter weeks.
The Cougars host Manitoba to end the month and move into an important stretch early on against rivals Calgary, and first place Saskatchewan along with the chance to build points off Lethbridge and Regina, who we swept to start the season.
Cougars women’s hockey is not off to the greatest start so far. 2-3-1 looks pretty pedestrian, but when taking the opposition into account early on, it could be worse. MRU split their opening weekend against Regina before getting swept by conference juggernauts UBC on home ice.
The next weekend however, MRU managed to salvage a series split against the national champions of two seasons ago, the Alberta Pandas. After getting a 7-0 humbling in game one of the weekend set in Edmonton, the Cougars racked up an impressive 3-1 win on home-ice. Alberta allowed two goals in their first five games, but MRU lit them up for three in one night.
A good confidence boost early on is what this young Cougars squad needs to carry a stretch of momentum against what seems to be a lighter schedule after a road trip against the reigning national champs Manitoba Bisons. With games against a winless Calgary team through six games, a tough weekend against current leader Saskatchewan, bottom Lethbridge and then Regina once again.
MRU Volleyball kicked off last weekend with the men hosting their first games of the season against the Manitoba Bison. After a rough 7-17 record last season that saw a poor season statistically, the Cougars began their 2018/2019 season with two wins against the Bisons on home court.
A comfortable 3-1 win on opening night and an epic but gritty three set comeback win is the start the Cougars were looking for. MRU were ranked sixth in the first U SPORT top 10 of the season.
The contributions of international additions in Perth, Australia’s Trent Mounter, SAIT transfer and college player of the year and Brazil’s Joao Freire were heavily felt along with the seniors properly showing the way, guided the Cougars to a 2-0 start.
Fifth-year Cougar icon Tyler Schmidt had an epic offensive display in the opening weekend, leading Canada West in total kills with 54 and a hitting percentage of .394. Libero Jonathan Phillips carried the defensive load with his current conference total digs of 39 in his final opening weekend for MRU.
The Cougars travel up north to Edmonton with a weekend set against the formidable Golden Bears to close October before hosting Brandon and hitting the road again, visiting UBCO and Winnipeg. All three opponents finished third, fourth and fifth in Canada West last season.
A theme head coach Sean Sky describes as a “meat grinder,” when it comes to the competition of the league but he believes his team can keep up with the heavy level of play.
“Most of the teams in Canada West dominate the U SPORT top 10. It’s like the SEC in college football, the league is just that loaded.”
Like the men, MRU hosted Manitoba on home court and also picked up two straight wins to begin their season at 2-0.
Mirroring results from the men’s games, the Cougars beat Manitoba 3-1 and 3-2. Also in an incredible comeback fashion as the Cougars were one point away from losing multiple times before locking it down on defence, led by Libero Natalia Klimenova who totalled 39 digs on the weekend.
Chantel Park carried the offensive load with a team leading 37 kill count.
“It came down to us playing pure ugly volleyball and trying to be as gritty as you can, that’s how we ended up winning. It literally was pure grit and coming up at the right time,” coach Sandra Lamb commented after the 3-2 comeback win.
Being the only team to make the playoffs with a below .500 record at 11-13, coach Lamb’s squad will also be facing tough competition early on.
Facing the same schools as the men’s, the Cougars visit Alberta who finished fourth last season, Brandon who were one win shy of the Cougars for the final playoff spot, UBCO who placed third and Winnipeg who conquered the basement of the league table.