MRU men’s soccer team seizes golden opportunity in Canada West final
By Matthew DeMille, Sports Editor & Zafir Nagji, Staff Writer
For the past two seasons, MRU’s men’s soccer program has been on the precipice of collegiate history. But until this season, the team couldn’t get over a consistent roadblock—a win in the Canada West semi-final match to claim their spot in the championship. With third-place finishes in both the 2021-22 season, MRU’s men’s program looked like they were cursed when it came to the playoffs.
And, while the team boasted yet another outstanding regular season campaign, the odds that the Cougars could vie for a gold medal was still doubtful to some.
Going into their quarterfinal matchup on Saturday, Oct. 28 against the Thompson Rivers
University Wolfpack (TRU), the MRU’s men’s soccer team sat atop the Canada West Prairie Division standings with a near-perfect, 11-2-1 record. Thanks to a series of mind-blowing seasons from players like forward David Schaefer and goalkeeper Aidan Dumoulin, the team looked to break a three-year curse of fantastic regular seasons ended by bronze-medal finishes.
The field was covered in ice and snow and the weather was cold and unforgiving, but Cougars forward Joshua Flaksman didn’t let the less-than-ideal temperatures stop him from scoring, as he put his team up, 1-0, in the 34th minute of the game. Just 11 minutes into the second half, the Wolfpack would return the favour with a goal from midfielder Akwasi Agyekum. The game stayed in a 1-1 draw at the conclusion of regulation time, meaning extra time was needed.
With no scoring in the first half of extra time, the Cougars entered the final 15 minutes desperately looking for one of their players to take matters into their own hands. And, that’s when Cougars midfielder Nikolas Myroniuk sent a corner kick, with just minutes to go in the game, spiraling to teammate Miguel Da Rocha, who headed the game-winning goal into the back of the net. Da Rocha’s goal was a critical one, as it advanced the men’s program to the semi-final round where they would compete to break their bronze-medal curse.
In their semi-final matchup, the Cougars were paired up against the high-octane, offensive squad hailing from British Columbia, the University of Victoria Vikes. And, in a similar fashion as how they ended their quarter-final match with TRU, the Cougars were on the hunt. Four minutes into the match, Canada West Defensive Player of the Year Caden Rogozinski buried a rebound goal to give his team an early, 1-0 lead. The Vikes wouldn’t be able to respond until 83 minutes later, when they capitalized on a penalty kick to tie the game, sending the match into overtime for the second-consecutive game.
The Cougars, who weren’t interested in taking part in a third-straight, bronze medal game, scored two goals in extra time thanks to two-time overtime hero, Miguel Da Rocha, and midfielder Mowbray Beghin. Both of whom came into the game as substitutes. The pivotal, semi-final triumph broke the Cougars’ bronze-medal curse, advancing the men’s program to the Canada West gold medal game on Saturday, Nov. 4 at Mount Royal Field.
Following their semi-final match triumph, Cougars head coach Ryan Gyaki praised his team for getting over their recurring roadblock.
“We are just so proud for the boys and for the university. You know, we get so much support from the university and the boys put so much effort in. So, we’re just so happy that we can reward them with a championship game” said Gyaki.
On Saturday, it was evident that the Cougars wanted more than to simply compete in their first championship match—they desperately craved a title.
Facing off against the University of British Columbia (UBC), the visiting Thunderbirds were expected to test the strength of Mount Royal’s character. Heading into their Saturday showdown, the Thunderbirds were looking to capture their sixth-straight Canada West Championship.
But, the half-decade long feat didn’t seem to be a concern for the Cougars.
The team took to the field methodically. Utilizing short passes to move the Thunderbirds defense around while clearing space to make deep runs up the field. And, in the 26th minute, they were rewarded as defenceman Ethan Keen buried a goal off of Joshua Flaksman’s rebound.
Keen’s first goal of the Canada West playoffs wound up being the only goal of the game, despite the Thunderbirds having the ball for much of the game. Thanks to great work from 2023 Canada West Defensive Player of the Year, Caden Rogozinski, and the flawless goalkeeping from rookie Aidan Dumoulin, who earned his conference-record 11th clean sheet of the season, the Cougars built up an impenetrable defense that couldn’t be punctured by UBC.
So, when the referee blew his whistle to signify the end of the game, it didn’t take more than a matter of seconds for fans to topple the fences and flood the field to celebrate their team’s first win in school history.
But, none was happier than the Cougar of the Game, Joshua Flaksman, who admitted that his first Canada West championship was an accomplishment that was acquired by monumental commitment by him and his teammates.
“We deserve it honestly. We’ve been working since August 1, [since the] pre-season. Everyday, the lads show up. We’re in the gym, we’re training in the field, everyone’s always giving their all and, honestly, I think we deserve [the championship]. We’ve been working so
hard for this” said Flaksman.
The Saturday afternoon win was also a day that Gyaki had been waiting seven years for.
“It’s an incredible feeling [and] a bit surreal,” Gyaki admitted.
“To try and just qualify for playoffs seemed so hard, then to win a playoff game seemed so hard, to win the prairie division seemed impossible. And now, to have won the prairies four years in a row and now finally have won Canada West, it feels pretty good.”
The job isn’t over for the Cougars either. Another, more prestigious title, is now within arms reach for the team. From Nov. 9-12, the Cougars will represent MRU and Canada West as the first-seeded team at the 2023 U SPORTS National Championship in Sydney, N.S.
The Cougars’ opening, quarter-final match will be held on Thursday, Nov. 9 against the eighth-seeded, Ontario University Athletics finalists, the York University Lions.