Now that they know their first-ever Canada West playoff venture will be a clash with the defending national champions of university men's soccer, the pressure is off the UNBC Timberwolves.
Anything from now on is gravy now for the T-wolves, having already taken their place in school history after five seasons of being on the outside looking in come playoff time. The T-wolves are relishing their role as underdogs as they prepare to face the Alberta Golden Bears (9-1-4, first in Prairie Division) in a one-game playoff Saturday afternoon (1 p.m. PT) in Edmonton.
"Making the playoffs is awesome, it's nice to be out this late in October playing football still playing games that matter, competing for a Canada West championship, and we'll do our best to do that," said UNBC fifth-year forward Tofa Fakunle.
"Our goal was to come here and build a program and to make a postseason and its pretty sweet that it's happening in my last year. It started with coach Al (Alderson) and Steve (current head coach Simonson) has taken it and solidified it and made it stronger and it will continue to keep growing. The players have worked so hard, we've put everything into it and trusted the process and the process has rewarded us with our first-ever playoff game."
The T-wolves (5-5-6) finished fourth in the Pacific Division and punched their playoff ticket on the final weekend of the regular season while they were waiting on the sidelines with a bye. Victoria and UBC-Okanagan each had their chances to dislodge UNBC for fourth place in the Pacific but came up short.
"Coming into the year last winter I think we knew we had the pieces to do it, some of our individual results were getting close and our (pre-season) non-conference performances were good," said Simonson, now in his third season at UNBC.
"The fact we're a more mature team than we were two years ago is big factor. Even our young guys are two or three years in the league and they understand what the league is all about. We do have some old guys in there that are very important but we also have first- and second-year kids who are holding up a big part of the team. What I'm most excited about is we're going to be more balanced in our years going forward. We're not totally reliant on seven fifth-years. That's the evolution of a program."
Alberta beat the T-wolves 3-1 back on Sept. 17 at North Cariboo Field, a game in which the teams were tied until the 66th minute when Golden Bears forward Nikko Cuglietta scored back-to-back goals to cinch it.
"We punched, we swung, they dodged some, and we had some chances and didn't take advantage of them," said Fakunle, a 21-year-old psychology/business major. "They scored one (to go ahead) and we were chasing the game. It finished 3-1 but that was a tough game and I'm sure if they're honest they'll say the same.
"We're the underdogs, they're the defending national champions playing at home, the pressure is on them to win. We're just a small school from Prince George and we're just going to enjoy our first-ever playoff experience and if we get a result..."
The Golden Bears averaged 2.57 goals per game as the highest-scoring team in the conference and put 243 shots on goal, second only to Trinity Western in Canada West. Scoring was a problem most games for the T-wolves, who finished tied with Fraser Valley in goals-for (17) in the season, averaging 1.06 goals per game.
"This the opponent I most look forward to having only because it's such a big challenge and I love that," said Simonson. "The bigger the challenge, it also takes the pressure completely off you. We absolutely believe we have a chance to get the result against this team, but you don't walk in against the defending champs and the No. 3 team in the country and say you should win this game. What you have to do is give them the respect they deserve but don't be afraid of them and if the game goes our way the pressure on them mounts and mounts. We don't have to carry that weight at all."
Cuglietta finished the season with seven goals, one off the pace of his teammate, Ajeej Sarkaria, who won his second-straight Canada West scoring crown with 17 points. The T-wolves can't just key on the Bears' top two snipers. Rookies Tolu Esan and Easton Ongara struck for five and four goals respectively, while senior Ajay Kabra had a five-goal season.
Fakunle led the T-wolves with three goals and four assists for seven points. second-year centre midfielders Cody Gysbers and Jonah Smith have played every minute of every game playing alongside Francesco Bartolilio and rock-steady centre backs Gordon Hall and Conrad Rowlands. Gysbers picked up three goals and Dan Goodey did his part offensively, contributing four assists.
The strength of the T-wolves is the defence and that starts with Ty Venhola, the busiest goalie in the conference. The fifth-year senior played every minute of the team's 16 games and made 75 saves, tops in Canada West.
"The shot count is partially due to the way we defend at times," said Simonson. "We allow shots from a distance so the shot numbers are a bit inflated but the ones that do come towards him he tends to make good on them. We have a solid back line and a good goalkeeper and that's going to be needed on Saturday."
UNBC forward Stuart Rowlands is serving a one-game suspension for getting served his third yellow card in the Fraser Valley game two weeks ago. That gives more playing time to Cheona Edzerza and Matt Jubinville, back to health after missing most of the season with a sprained ankle. Centre back Josh McAvoy is out with a broken foot, but defender Emmanuel Drame is back from a groin injury he suffered in the Alberta game.
A high of 16 C is expected Saturday in Edmonton and the teams will be playing on natural grass. The winner advances to the semifinal round against the winner of the Trinity Western-Calgary game Saturday night in Langley.