For the second time in three years, the UFV Cascades are Canada West men’s soccer bronze medalists.
The Cascades earned the final spot on the conference podium on the strength of a 2-1 win over the Trinity Western Spartans on Saturday evening at UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium.
Connor MacMillan had a huge night for UFV – the fourth-year midfielder from Chilliwack opened the scoring on a penalty kick in the 46th minute (off a foul in the box that he drew), and he later set up Michael Mobilio for what turned out to be the game-winning goal in the 72nd minute.
The Spartans made the Cascades sweat down the stretch, as Aidan Moore scored in the 84th minute to cut the deficit in half, but UFV hung on for the victory.
“I’m really proud,” Cascades head coach Tom Lowndes said. “They’re a fantastic group to coach, and I think we deserved it over the course of the season. It’s huge for the program, and a really nice way to finish the season.”
Both UFV and TWU were coming off deflating semifinal defeats on Friday with national championship berths on the line. The Cascades had fallen 3-0 to the Final Four host UBC Thunderbirds, while the Spartans had dropped a 2-1 decision to the UVic Vikes.
The first half between the two Valley rivals was a defensive struggle, as neither team could really break into the final third to create many quality scoring chances.
In the 28th minute, the Spartans got one of their first really good shots on target, as from 25 yards out, midfielder Elijah Adekugbe sent a terrific free kick at UFV goalkeeper Alex Skretza. Skretza was up to the challenge, as he made a great stop moving to his left.
The Cascades got a nice opportunity to create some havoc with a set-piece of their own in the 43rd minute, when a long-range kick found its way into a crowded Trinity Western 18-yard box. Amidst the heavy traffic, Spartans keeper Andrew Hicks did well to track the ball in the air, and just managed to punch it away from danger before the Cascades could pounce.
Coming out of the halftime break, the Cascades wasted no time breaking the scoreless deadlock. MacMillan took a deep run into Trinity Western territory and weaved his way into the Spartans’ box, only to be hauled down for a penalty kick. He stepped up to the spot and made no mistake, beating Hicks clean.
It took 25 more minutes, but UFV eventually got the all-important second goal. On a throw-in from the right sideline, MacMillan made a fantastic play to receive the ball, turn and deliver a quick chip into the path of Mobilio, who finished with authority from in close.
Trinity Western finally got on the board when forward Cody Fransen lobbed it up to first-year man Aidan Moore. The midfielder did well to race onto the ball in space down the right flank, and wire a shot past Skretza.
But the Spartans couldn’t find the equalizer, and UFV walked away with the win – and Canada West bronze. It matched the best-ever conference finish for the Cascades, who had also taken third in 2013 under former bench boss Alan Errington.
“It was a slow start for both teams – you could tell, emotionally, how much yesterday’s games took out of us and Trinity,” said Lowndes, who took the helm of the Cascades this season after Errington’s retirement.
“As the first half wore on, we got a foothold in the game and started to press them a bit more. We didn’t want halftime to come. And then obviously getting the penalty right after halftime kind of lifted us.
“As we like to do, we made it interesting at the end by letting them back in. But we defended well, and we saw the game out. Fantastic result for the boys.”
MacMillan said his “head wasn’t in it” in the first half, as he was still processing the disappointment of Friday’s semifinal defeat.
“I wanted to make nationals really bad, and I felt like this was the year to do it,” he explained. “Tom took me off part-way through the first half and him and (assistant coach) Mike (Newton) talked to me and said, ‘We’ll put you back in in the second half – just make a difference and play the way we know you can play and the game will go well.’ I just took their advice, and it helped. It feels good (to win bronze).”
After the game, the Cascades hoisted right back Colton O’Neill – the lone fifth-year player on the squad – into the air in celebration of the final game of his university career.
O’Neill said that winning another Canada West medal was a “nice way to end the five years.” He was caught by surprise, though, when his teammates sent him airborne.
“It was a bit crazy to be honest, but it was a nice gesture by the guys,” he said with a chuckle. “They’re really good friends, so it was nice of them to do something like that for me. I’m just glad they didn’t drop me.”
Lowndes reflected on O’Neill’s legacy on the occasion of his last game as a Cascade.
“There’s not much you can say about Colton O’Neill that hasn’t already been said,” he said. “The kid’s a winner. Fantastic player, a privilege to coach, an all-around first-class person. And by far, for me, probably the best player to ever play for this program.”
– with files from UBC Thunderbirds communications