T-wolves tackle Heat with playoffs in sight

A top-three divisional finish is not out of the question for the UNBC Timberwolves.

Running the table and sinking their opponents in their last four games to close the U Sports Canada West men's soccer regular season might be enough to do the trick.

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First things first. Making the playoffs for the second straight year is not yet a done deal for UNBC.

It all comes down to winning percentages in the unbalanced Canada West conference because some teams play 15 games and some play 16, and right now the T-wolves (4-3-4, .485 percentage) have a grip on fourth place in the Pacific Division.

The T-wolves are still within striking range of the third-place Fraser Valley Cascades (6-4-1, .576 percentage) and could even leapfrog the second-place Trinity Western Spartans (7-1-4, .694 percentage), although that's unlikely considering the Spartans are on a four-game winning streak - the hottest team in Canada West. The UBC Thunderbirds (10-0-2, .889 percentage) essentially have first place wrapped up.

"We're at this crux here where we have to decide who we want to be - we've played 11 games and lost three and that's the reality of why we're in a playoff position but if we really want to turn ourselves into a top team we have to turn some of those ties into wins," said T-wolves head coach Steve Simonson.

"We're confident now that we can handle everybody. Do we believe that we can be the better team all the time? That's a big step for us. Can we truly step into a game and believe we're going to win every single game? If we can do that I think we'll have a chance to do well this year in the playoffs, if we get there."

A pair of wins this weekend at Masich Place Stadium against the UBC Okanagan Heat (2-6-4, seventh in Pacific) in their final home games of the season Saturday and Sunday (both 2 p.m. starts) would certainly keep the T-wolves in line for a better playoff seed against a Prairie Division opponent than they had last year as fourth-place finishers in the crossover quarterfinal.

"There are no easy games, every team has proven they can take points off everybody," said Simonson. "We expect similar to last year, it was a hard-fought close game with UBCO (two scoreless draws in 2017). They're defensively very sound and they can hit you on some set pieces for sure. But they've got the ability to score goals.

"What we don't know yet is because they're not mathematically out of the playoffs, are they here to fight or are they close to thinking they're done? I'm going to assume they'll come here to fight for their lives. We could be up against a very hungry team. The worst thing that could happen is if we believe we're in the playoffs before we are. We can't be complacent whatsoever, we have to respect every opponent and go in playing every game to the best of our ability."

Last weekend in Kamloops the T-wolves got caught flatfooted in the first game against the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack and lost 3-1, then came up with a frenzied finish in the rematch on Sunday to tie TRU 3-3. In that game the teams traded three goals in the final three minutes.

Cody Gysbers scored on a penalty kick for the T-wolves in the 88th minute, a goal countered immediately by WolfPack shooter Justin Donaldson. But just before the whistle, fourth-year T-wolf Emmanuel Drame took a pass from Gordon Hall in the box and redirected the ball in for the tying goal.

"During the game we thought we'd done enough to be in the lead and of course to have to come from behind and equalize in the 90th minute 2-2 is a great accomplishment, but then we chuck it away 15 seconds later," said Simonson.

"A lot of teams might have packed it in at that moment but our guys didn't. I'm just proud of them for not rolling over. There was a real resilience in that moment to know that it's not over until the bitter end. If we can take that forward it means we can come back from anything that's going wrong in this push for the playoffs."

The T-wolves are a bit banged up and won't likely have the services of midfielders Michael Henman (ankle), Jonah Smith (lower body) and Josh McAvoy (foot).

Sunday's home game will be the last in the five-year university soccer careers of T-wolves forward Francesco Bartolillo and defenders Conrad Rowlands and Gordon Hall.

The UNBC women (1-6-3, eighth in Pacific) are on the road in Alberta this weekend with games Saturday in Calgary and Sunday in Lethbridge.

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