Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
-With files from Dinos Communications
CALGARY – It's possible that Canada West has never seen resiliency like this.
Just two weeks after enduring the worst loss in conference men's soccer history, the MacEwan Griffins advanced to the U SPORTS post-season for the first time after completing a weekend sweep over the previously-unbeaten Calgary Dinos with a 1-0 win on Sunday.
Amazing, improbable and downright incredible are words and terms that hardly do the feat justice, considering the Griffins were left for dead after losing 12-3 to Mount Royal University on Oct. 10.
"It's just amazing how we kind of hit a wave and got it going," said head coach Adam Loga, whose squad closed the season on a 3-0-1 run to grab the Central Division's fourth and final playoff spot at 4-4-2, three points better than 3-5-2 Saskatchewan. "The amount of belief and resiliency within the group … getting battered 12-3 and we came back with more belief and went on a run.
"I can't be prouder of the guys. They deserve it so much. They don't get all the bells and whistles that other teams get within the conference or other sports, but they just keep grinding. I can't be more proud. They're just such a good group of kids."
Rakan (Ricky) Yassin tapped in a cross from Ali Yildiz in the 83rd minute on Sunday and the Griffins stunned the Dinos 1-0 to take care of business themselves.
It turns out, Saskatchewan and Alberta played to a scoreless draw in a game going on at the same time in Saskatoon, so a tie would also have gotten the Griffins through, but the wildly-celebrated goal left nothing to chance.
"We just went for it," said Loga. "We knew we controlled our own destiny, so we didn't have to game watch. We could just look after ourselves."
Rookie Yildiz made a huge difference for a second-straight day. His pass went to Stefan Gajic for the winner in a 1-0 triumph on Saturday and another cross was on Yassin's boot on Sunday.
"Ali ran it down much like he did yesterday," explained Loga of a ball played in by the defence, "beat a couple guys on the end line and just cut it back for a tap-in for Rick. Ali Yildiz just comes through again as a young 17 year old and gets us that game-winning assist."
In the final minutes of action, the Dinos put constant pressure on the Griffins in an effort to tie the score. Griffins goalkeeper Josh Stayko was spectacular, stopping everything that came his way, making key plays late in the game.
Stayko finished with three saves, while Calgary goalkeeper Jake Ruschkowski stopped six shots. MacEwan outshot Calgary 10-7.
But the victory was more than that for the Griffins, who were forced to play without Gajic due to a one-game suspension and were also without several regulars on the shelf with injuries, including starters Zach Rochat and Tom Alberkant.
"Basically, it was just next-man up mentality," said Loga. "Guys came in and had to do a job and did it. Tobi (Abass Ajibade) was class for two games. Jakob (Sievert) stepped up and was class for two games. Evan (Berube) stepped into the lineup and did a job. And then the other guys took care of business – the Ali's and Chance's and Mikey Ho's of the world.
"When a team is that tight-knit, it doesn't matter who you throw out there from the roster all the way from 1 down to 25. They'll find comfort looking next to their teammates on the pitch, just knowing we all have each other's backs."
And that's really the key to this Griffins team, the biggest reason why they became the first in seven attempts since the program entered Canada West to make the playoffs: Chemistry.
"I've never had a group here at MacEwan that's as tight-knit and close as these guys," said Loga. "I challenged them to bring that to the pitch. Their attitude's so contagious. Everyone wants to be around them. They've got a great life buzz to them.
"I just challenged them to show that to the conference … show that to everyone what we're about. That's our identity. Just to see it all come together at the right time is just amazing for them. I couldn't be prouder."
The Griffins will head out on the road for their first-ever Canada West playoff match, set for next Saturday at the Victoria Vikes (7 p.m. MT, Canada West TV presented by Co-op), who finished first in the West Division at 6-3-3. The winner will advance to the conference's Final Four tournament on Nov. 5-7, hosted by the highest-remaining Central Division seed.