The UNBC Timberwolves were not at all fooled by the winless record the Mount Royal University Cougars brought to the field Sunday at Masich Place Stadium.
They knew the five losses of their women's soccer opponents from Calgary to start the season all came against the cream of the U Sports Canada West crop. On a drizzly afternoon, the T-wolves dug in expecting a fierce fight and that's exactly what they received in what ended up a 1-1 tie.
"They were a 0-5 team but they were heavy-loaded at the beginning of the season with strong teams they'd played against, such as Calgary, UVic and UBC, and we knew they were a fast-paced team that pressed high and they did that today," said T-wolves assistant coach Jo Wankling.
"In the first half we had better possession and were able to penetrate, getting behind their line and had quite a few chances in that half but in the second half they really came out."
The T-wolves almost broke the deadlock in the 10-minute mark and team scoring leader Paige Payne was the instigator. Jenna Wild's header sent Paige in alone on goalie Katrina Greenley. Her first shot from 10 yards out was blocked by the fourth-year 'keeper and the rebound went right to Payne's foot but Greenley got down low to smother the second shot.
The T-wolves' offence tailed off considerably in a second half and UNBC's Madi Doyle was the busier of the two goaltenders. The Cougars' best chance was a save Doyle did not have to make, around the 70th minute, when Hannah Park header just missed the net high. The Cougars kept up the pressure, putting two more balls wide, and Doyle was forced to make three more saves before time ran out.
Mount Royal's first five opponents - MacEwan, Alberta, UBC, Victoria and Calgary - had a combined two losses when Sunday's game began.
"They came in playing five very good teams and we knew, playing us, they weren't going to go down easy, looking for their first win of the season," said UNBC defender Mara McCleary. "Something we're looking to improve on is to keep those chances coming all throughout the game because quite often we've been very strong in the first half. It's just continuing continuing to play our way in the second half and keeping those chances coming right up to the 90th minute"
In what turned out a defensive struggle, McCleary was a standout. Now in her fourth season, the 20-year-old from Victoria continues to be the backbone of the UNBC defence. Despite taking a beating in a second-half goalmouth collision that left her neck feeling like someone had taken a bat to it, she was aggressive all game forcing opponents to cough up the ball and used her speed to instigate rushes the other way up the field.
"I got hit a bit and my neck wasn't expecting it so I had a bit of a whiplashy neck there that made me a bit dizzy, but it was nothing major," said McCleary, who turns 21 in October. "Canada West has always been a physical conference we play in and that's part of the game. You have to step up and play your game and stay competitive. It's fun to play that physical game and keeping it fair there's always that in-between and it's nice to walk that line."
McCleary always seems willing to sacrifice her body and put herself in the line of fire and she went down to the turf on at least two other occasions Sunday but never left the field. She's maintained that warrior mentality throughout her career at UNBC.
"Mara is able to push through no matter how many hits and how many times she's taken out," said Wankling. "She's great in the air and cleared out a lot of balls out of our box today, as she always does. She's is a rock in the back for us and we rely heavily on her. Even when she's injured she still pushes through. "
In Friday's 1-0 win over the Lethbridge Pronghorns, a heads-up play from McCleary in the 69th minute pushed the ball forward to Sofia Jones, which led to Hannah Emmond's high curling shot that gave the T-wolves the victory.
The tie kept the T-wolves (3-1-2) fourth in the Pacific Division while Mount Royal (0-5-1) remains last in the Prairie Division. UNBC visits UBC-Okanagan and Thompson Rivers University this weekend.
Meanwhile in Edmonton on Sunday, Owen Stewart scored the only goal as the UNBC men defeated the Grant MacEwan Griffins 1-0. Stewart cashed in a rebound in the 82nd minute after Stu Rowlands broke through the Griffins' defence and put a shot on goalie Seth Johnstone.
Rob Goodey made four saves for the shutout. The win improved UNBC's record to 4-4-1. MacEwan dropped to 1-5-2.
Saturday in Edmonton, the T-wolves gave up goals in the 88th and 90th minutes and lost 3-2 to the Alberta Golden Bears. The sixth-place T-wolves host the Pacific Division-leading UBC Thunderbirds (5-1-1) Friday night and Sunday afternoon at Masich.