Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
-With files from Victoria Athletics
VICTORIA – None of this was supposed to happen, of course.
Given little respect with a 12th-place ranking in the Canada West preseason coaches' poll, the MacEwan Griffins men's soccer team was supposed to be sitting at home watching other teams battle in the Canada West quarter-finals.
Yet, there they were – the scrappiest bunch of underdogs the conference has seen in some time giving arguably the top team in the league the fight of their lives.
Forcing overtime on Saturday night with an incredible comeback to hit 3-3 at 90 minutes against West Division No. 1 seed Victoria, the Griffins eventually ran out of gas, falling 6-3.
"I'm just so proud of them," said head coach Adam Loga. "They just continue to fight and battle and show perseverance and resilience. Again, we're battling injuries right now and the whole team's basically sick (with colds). To put forth that effort on the road is amazing. We were just one shot, one call away from coming out on top."
They were the magic team that somehow overcame the worst loss in Canada West men's soccer history by closing the season 3-0-1 with back-to-back wins over previously unbeaten Calgary on the final weekend to make the playoffs for the first time since joining Canada West.
Like a microcosm of their season, MacEwan was left for dead on Saturday night, too, after going down 2-0 early in the contest.
A tough call on a free kick awarded a penalty to the Vikes in the 14th minute and
Isaac Koch made no mistake to open the scoring. Not even two minutes later, the Vikes would double their lead as Mark Kaiser whipped a ball in to Ian Whibley, who took one touch and scored.
"We just kept positivity and belief in the room," said Loga. "When you're down 2-nil, it's just two shots. That's exactly what it was. We never got rattled.
"This group has seen a lot and had to face a lot – whether it's not getting the breaks or being on the lower end of some calls … I'm being interviewed in this University of Victoria stadium that's a palace. They know what they're up against. There's a tangibility within this group that measures up with the best of them. That brotherhood we have can shrink any margin that's in front of us."
So, even when the Vikes went up 3-1 in the 53rd minute on Whibley's second of the contest, you couldn't count the Griffins out.
Just four minutes later, Stefan Gajic played in Yassin with a great ball deep into the box and he tapped it past Victoria goalkeeper Harjot Nijjar.
Some golden late opportunities, including two corners and a deep free kick went unconverted.
"We had two big chances in the 89th minute to put it away," said Loga. "That would have been nice. That's how close we were."
But as overtime opened up, it was all Victoria. They needed just 33 seconds to net the game-winner – as Matteo Venture beat Josh Stayko off a pass in tight from Whibley.
The Vikes added two more goals – Whibley's hat-trick marker in the 94th minute and Luc Brix-Montero's tally in the 102nd.
It's a bittersweet finish for the Griffins who had a shot in a game few others gave them one in.
"We always knew we had the potential to be here and go on," said Loga. "We were a bit unlucky at the end, even with the penalty kick call. But that's sport. We felt we definitely did enough to come out on top in 90 minutes."
Nevertheless, as they take stock in what they accomplished this season, the Griffins now have momentum, an identity and a winning culture.
"Credit to the lads, the leadership group, my staff to keep the train moving," said Loga, focusing on the positives of this group. "It's awesome in a sense that we have a lot of first-year players and young lads who could experience this and experience the locker-room the way it is now, not the way it was.
"So, that's going to help us a ton moving forward."