CIS brings heartbreak for valiant Vikes

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Kathleen Leahy makes a daring run for the Vikes during their silver-medal match on Nov. 8. Photo provided via
Kathleen Leahy makes a daring run for the Vikes during their silver-medal match on Nov. 8. Photo provided via

Despite the miserable day, it seemed like the UVic Vikes women’s field hockey team were destined for glory. Here it was: Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) gold medal match, home turf, hundreds of fans spilling over the bleachers, and a solid season record propelling the Vikes to snap the UBC side’s four-year stranglehold on the title.

Opening at a furious pace, neither side seemed to gain a foothold, until the Thunderbirds claimed the first strike. A penalty corner around minute 15 resulted in defender/midfielder Emily Prystupa knocking a rebound past five-foot-four goalkeeper Larissa Piva. Piva made some spectacular plays throughout the game, including a soaring mid-air save in the shootout which made me question the impossibility of unaided human flight. Down 1-0 in the most critical game of the year, the Vikes would need to regroup and take the fight to the Thunderbirds.

And fight these valkyries did, leading charge after charge out of the midfield to storm the UBC end. Still they were seemingly unable to reach the back of the net, even after managing to solve the Thunderbird’s defensive line. A stunning penalty play seemed to even the scoreboard, with veteran midfielder Kathleen Leahy sending the ball rocketing past UBC goalie Rowan Harris. The crowd went wild, only to be reigned in by the official’s whistle: the ball was played outside the scoring circle.

While outraged spectators made judiciary appeals for several minutes after the call, the Vikes channeled their rage far more productively, tearing again and again into the Thunderbird scoring circle. Ten minutes later, the Vikes’ drive was rewarded: a scrum in front of Harris’ domain resulted in a hard shot tipped off a UBC defender’s heel. The Vikes were on the board, and this time the only whistling to be heard was from the exuberant sidelines.

Returning after halftime to an even match, with the championship a tantalizing 35 minutes away, the Vikes pressed on, managing to force second-half play into the T-bird end, and keeping it there with grit and heart. Time after time, the folded-back UBC team whacked the ball away, only to have play intercepted and thrown back to their doorstep. Vikes’ tenacity at last broke through, Rosie Beale blasting a top-of-the-circle beauty. Once again lent a handy heel by UBC’s defense, the ball slid past the sprawling Harris. 2-1 Vikes, 20 minutes left to play.

The match turned frenetic, as the Vikes tried to put the game to bed with an extended lead, while the T-birds clawed for a chance to turn things around. It seemed that chance had come, as a yellow card duet (the only yellows tossed out the entire match) hobbled the Vikes with a two woman shortage for eight minutes of play. Despite this gratuitous advantage, the Thunderbirds couldn’t make it past centre more than a couple times. As if to drive the message home, Leahy once again brought the stands to their feet with an impressive straight run, dancing around the defense with a dangle to make hardened NHL players drool and finishing with a punishing shot to the left corner. Regrettably, Leahy’s challenge squeaked wide, but the run was a bright spot in what would quickly become a literally and figuratively dark night.

Everything seemed in hand for the Vikes to claim victory, until the very final minutes of play. Turning aside the initial late-game penalty, with 20 seconds left in play, the Vikes couldn’t hold out against the reset: when the play was recalled and retaken, a mess of bodies in the goal circle left the Thunderbirds an opening. Best for last, indeed: UBC forward Niki Best tapped a many-times deflected ball past a scrambled Piva, sending the CIS championship into overtime.

The teams lined up, the fans held their breath. Piva turned aside ultimate MVP Hannah Haughn, but couldn’t contain the greased lightning of T-birds Sarah Keglowitsch, Cailean Meredith, and Sophie Jones. UVic could only manage one goal in reply from top scorer Amanda Kurianowicz, taking silver in a shocking turn.

Still, the UVic women should be proud of their performance in a breathtaking, damn fine match. For the 10th straight year, they claim silver in CIS standings, and will return next year to do it all again.