EDMONTON – Stuck in a rut with only one goal scored in their last four games, the Griffins men's soccer team decided to mix things up on Sunday.
Enter rookie striker Ali Blaybel.
Where have you been?
The BTB Academy and Team Alberta product scored the first two goals of his U SPORTS career, lifting MacEwan to a 2-1 victory over the Lethbridge Pronghorns that reignites their push for a second-consecutive Canada West playoff berth.
Now at 3-5-3, the Griffins have moved into a tie with Calgary (3-4-3) on points for third in the Prairie Division, but the Dinos have a game in hand. The top four teams make the playoffs.
"Since yesterday, the result obviously wasn't good for us," said Blaybel of a 2-0 loss to Saskatchewan. "To get this win today was great for us. We have our heads up and this week of training's going to be good. Keep on moving."
It didn't take long for the Griffins to strike first on Sunday as Blaybel took a pass from Michael Ho in the sixth minute, cut across the face of the Lethbridge defence and blasted a left-footed strike from the top of the box that tucked inside the right post.
His second – a crucial insurance marker that gave the Griffins some breathing room in the 88th minute – came after he took a dish from Yusupha Bangura and unleashed a cracker from the 35-yard line that beat Lethbridge goalkeeper Armaan Thawer on the left side of the net.
"It feels good," he said. "This is my first time starting the whole season. Throughout the season so far, I've worked hard to try and get to the first 11 and with my debut now and to get two goals is a fantastic feeling. I'm happy to help the team."
Griffins head coach Adam Loga had a feeling that Blaybel was ready for more after mostly coming on a super sub so far this season.
"It's great to see," he said. "I've known him for a long time and trust and believe in him. We all do. He's been putting up good performances in the reserve games.
"There was an opportunity for him to make his way into the lineup with his play. He's earned it. And he showed what he can do today."
Teammates mob Ali Blaybel after he scored his second of the game in the 88th minute (Joel Kingston photo).
Lethbridge's Danilo Morales broke through the middle of MacEwan's defence in extra time and slotted it inside the left post for the Pronghorns' only goal of the game, which came too little, too late as the final whistle sounded shortly thereafter.
With the loss, the Pronghorns fall to 1-9-1 with their playoff chances on life support. They would have to win their final three games of the season and have both MacEwan and Saskatchewan falter in their last matches to get in.
But the Griffins have new life with three games left – at Alberta on Oct. 15, at Calgary Oct. 22 and at Mount Royal Oct. 23. And they did it by focusing on the present, forgetting tough results in the past as they snapped a six-game winless streak on Sunday.
"The message basically was just enjoy it," said Loga. "Remember why we play this game, especially with Senior Day as a foundational piece, as well. Let's shrink our season – now there's four games left. It's a four-game season, we're starting 0-0-0 today. Just compartmentalize the stuff that's happened in the past and push it back.
"They did that today. It was a little bit slow at the start – maybe they took it too literally having fun as if it's a Sunday kick-around. But the second half we addressed it and they had a great second half."
Sheldon Prasad poses with Adam Loga and his family after the game (Joel Kingston photo).
In a heartwarming moment, Sheldon Prasad was subbed in in extra time for his first action since the 2019 season after rehabbing a torn ACL.
Following the contest, he was one of six graduating seniors playing their final home regular season game who were feted in a special ceremony, joining Stefan Gajic, Michael Ho, Zach Rochat, Abass Ajibade and Joseph Abrahart.
"You look at our program and where it is right now," said Loga. "I think Rochat mentioned it – since the first game we've been in a playoff position and that's been unheard of.
"They all grew it. We grew it together and I'm going to forever be indebted to them to take a chance on a first-year rookie head coach in Canada West and a young program. They had offers to go elsewhere, but to stick it out with me and MacEwan, I'll forever be indebted."
Stefan Gajic (Joel Kingston photo).
Michael Ho (Joel Kingston photo).
Zach Rochat (Joel Kingston photo).
Abass Ajibade (Joel Kingston photo).
Joseph Abrahart (Joel Kingston photo).