Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
CAPE BRETON, N.S. – In the end, it was the togetherness that defined them all year that carried them, their incredible resolve that lifted them up and an unlikely hero coming through in the right moment as the MacEwan Griffins women's soccer team captured the first U SPORTS national championship in program history on Sunday.
Backup goalkeeper Bianca Castillo made two saves in the penalty kick shootout as the Griffins defeated Trinity Western 3-2 and took to the Cape Breton University field in a wild celebration.
It's MacEwan's historic first national championship since the university joined U SPORTS in 2014.
"It's a moment I won't forget for the rest of my life," said Griffins captain Samantha Gouveia, who was named tournament MVP. "We worked so hard to come from the bottom up and it just tells how much heart is in the souls of these players that I have the honour of sharing the pitch with.
"I'm just so grateful I could lead them to this special moment. We just stepped up and we did this together. Everybody contributed."
And they did it for starting goalkeeper Breanna Truscott, who was involved in a scary collision late in overtime, carted off the field and taken to hospital in an ambulance.
Castillo, who began the season as the Griffins' starter, playing eight regular season games, hadn't seen the pitch since Oct. 23 when the team decided to ride the hot hand of Truscott all the way to the U SPORTS championship game.
"All I was thinking was I was doing it for Bre," said Castillo. "She carried us through a lot of our games and I'm so proud of what she's done. I wanted us to get that gold medal and I wanted to do it for Bre and the team."
When she stopped Trinity Western's Kathryn Harvey in the final round of the shootout, it took her a couple seconds to realize that was it.
The Griffins were national champs!
"It was a surreal moment," said Castillo. "The adrenaline was very, very high. And I just kept belief. I was able to perform at my best at the very last second."
Parents and support staff flooded the field as the Griffins handed the Spartans their first loss of the season and made history with a banner that will never be forgotten at MacEwan University.
"I'm speechless, but I'm not because I just know all the work these girls have put in and all the girls that came before them," said MacEwan head coach Dean Cordeiro. "That's what we can't forget. So many people have left their fingerprints all over the program and to be standing as the top team in the country, in all of U SPORTS today, is a very proud moment and a memory we'll never forget our whole lives.
"I'm just amazed with this team and our perseverance."
Griffins players celebrate after Raeghan McCarthy's first goal on Sunday (Jefferson Hagen photo).
It's truly amazing because the way the Spartans came out of the gates, it wasn't looking good for the Griffins. Trinity Western jumped all over them early and got the game's first goal in the 16th minute when Harvey converted Maddie Melnychuk's cross.
"That was the first time we were trailing all tournament," said Cordeiro, whose team made the final with a 2-1 win over Queen's, followed by a 1-0 OT win over UBC. "But the response in our group – we didn't cave, we fought harder. Not only did we get the one goal back, but we got a second before the break."
The Griffins kept pushing and took the lead right before half-time when Salma Kamel's blast went bar down, off TWU keeper Hannah Miller and across the line.
Harvey tied the score in the 63rd minute for the Spartans to force overtime.
"We took it," said Cordeiro of the difference in the end. "We wanted it a bit more.
"Our players stepped up at the end of the game in penalties to pick a spot and make it count," said Cordeiro. "I'm proud of them. I'm just so super proud of Bianca Castillo. Her role changed this year and it's funny how things work out. When we needed her most, she got the opportunity.
"Our prayers are up for Breanna Truscott, who was a tournament all-star. You never want to see something scary like that happen. But we rallied around and we did it for her.
"We're national champs, baby!"
Yes, they are.
All of them. Together.