(Photo Credit: Bob Frid/UBC Thunderbirds)
It’s been 10 years since the UBC Thunderbirds won their last national men’s soccer championship. Incredible really.
Not only because their 2013 victory over Laval Rouge et Or in New Brunswick saw them add to their dominance in the college game and increase their record setting championship total to 13, but when you look back at the players and talent that have come through the program this past decade, how they have not lifted another U SPORTS title in those subsequent years is head-scratching.
They’ve come close, none more so than last year when they suffered penalty shootout heartbreak against BC rivals Thompson Rivers Wolfpack in the championship game in Kamloops. It’s perhaps fitting then, that 10 years after their last triumph, 2023 could the year that the red-hot Thunderbirds make it title number 14.
The postseason action gets underway for UBC on Friday in a new-look Canada West playoff format. Gone are the back-to-back Quarter-finals/Final Four weekends, replaced by a quarter-final and semi-final weekend this week and a Canada West championship game next weekend. In short, what that means for the Thunderbirds is that they can clinch their spot at next month’s nationals in Cape Breton on Saturday night with a pair of victories over the next two days.
UBC head into the Canada West playoffs ranked both number one in the conference and number one in the whole country following a season that saw them rack up 13 wins, 2 draws, and just one solitary defeat in their 16 regular season matches. They’ll be the favourites, but equally the team with the biggest target on their back.
They averaged 2.5 goals per game, scoring 40 over the season, whilst conceding just eight. Sebastian Dzikowski led the way, setting a program single season scoring record with 15 goals, beating Craig Chiasson’s previous record that had stood since 1994 by one. Dzikowski was one of 12 players to find the back of the net for the Thunderbirds this season, as their new-look attack clicked instantly. Connor Mrazek is next in the scoring charts with five, followed by rookie Luke Norman on four. Norman, a Whitecaps Academy alumni and League1 BC standout, leads the way with five assists, tied with another ‘Caps alumni Chris Lee.
Mike Mosher’s sides have always been built around a stingy defence and this year is no different, with the Thunderbirds keeping nine clean sheets over the regular season, eight of them from Bennett McKay, who has come back from an injury-hit 2022 with a bang. A huge credit for that also has to go to a backline that has been phenomenal to a man.
The Thunderbirds one loss this season came against their most recent nemesis, the TRU Wolfpack, and you can be sure that Mosher’s side would like nothing more than to get another crack at them this postseason, whether that be in Canada West or out in Nova Scotia.
That’s getting ahead of the job in hand, which is something the Thunderbirds simply don’t do. The focus right now is on this weekend’s matches and they kick things of at Thunderbirds Stadium on Friday night at 5pm when they host the visiting Calgary Dinos in a rematch of last year’s Canada West championship game.
That match went all the way to penalties, with the Thunderbirds eventually triumphing 6-5 on spot kicks after the teams played out a goalless 120 minutes and if this season’s one previous meeting between the two teams in a gauge, it’s going to be a closely contested quarter-final.
It took a 70th minute goal from Tomas Pena to separate the sides in UBC’s 1-0 victory at Ken Woods Field on September 22nd, and although Calgary come into this one as big underdogs after just scraping into the playoffs following a last day loss by MacEwan, the Thunderbirds won’t be taking anything for granted as they go for a sixth straight Canada West crown.
“There are no easy games in Canada West, I say it all the time, playoffs or otherwise,” UBC head coach Mike Mosher said this week. “This is a team that we’re well aware was one penalty kick away from beating us last year in the final. We definitely expect a difficult, well-prepared team.
“We’ve had a lot of close games this season, that’s good. That helps you prepare for this time of the season when everything’s going to be expectedly quite tight. Everybody starts at the same line. There’s a little bit of history from what’s gone on in the season but the one thing with our game is it can be a very tight game, and if you don’t take chances along the way you can find yourself on the wrong end. We’ll be ready, we’ll be prepared, the guys are in a good place.”
If UBC get past Calgary they’ll face the winner of the second quarter-final between Alberta Golden Bears and Trinity Western Spartans in Saturday’s semi-final. Win that and they’re guaranteed to be heading back to nationals, with a Canada West championship game also then on the horizon for next weekend.
Then, they sky’s the limit for this squad.