As dusk fell over York Stadium on Sunday night, the star player of the York Lions handed the University of Toronto Varsity Blues men’s soccer team the 2010 OUA title in a dramatic shootout, sending them onto next week’s CIS championships not just as the hosts, but as the provincial victors.

The OUA Final Four tournament for the Blackwood Cup took place on November 6 and 7. The playoffs were Toronto-heavy this year, and out of the four teams vying for a spot in the CIS championships (set to take place at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium from November 11–14) the only non-Toronto-based spot went to the Western Mustangs.

This was the first time that all the Toronto universities had made it into the finals together, including the underdog Ryerson Rams, who snuck in during their quarterfinal win after an upset that knocked out the favored Carleton Ravens.

The rivalry between the University of Toronto and Western was nothing new, as the teams had previously faced each other in the OUA finals in 1996 and 1998, with Western taking the gold on both occasions. The teams were evenly matched coming in, with the Blues and the Mustangs ranked 5th and 6th respectively in the CIS standings.

The Blues last won a CIS championship back in 2002 and have won more national golds than any of the other three teams competing on the weekend.

The Varsity Blues entered the finals holding the number one spot in the Eastern Division and the number five spot in the CIS. While the team had been consistently strong throughout the regular season, their OUA quarterfinal match on October 30 against Queen’s was a fight to the very finish, with the Blues scoring two goals in the final minutes of the game to seal the win.
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“I could’ve checked into the hospital [after that game],” said Blues Head Coach Anthony Capotosto. “It was a very nerve-wracking game, and we scored two goals in an eight minute span right at the end. Not the position we wanted to be in during a quarterfinal game, but we’ll take the result.”

Although the team was slightly shaken after the tough match, Captain Darragh McGee saw the strength in the Toronto players.

“I think a lot of the guys are excelling, and I think that confidence is the highest it’s been since I came to Toronto three years ago,” said McGee. “I don’t think there’s any doubt on the squad that we’re going to do it, and that’s not confidence talking, that’s genuine.”

The Western Mustangs are no strangers to the limelight either. Rock Basacco, the current head coach, is a 15-year veteran to the team and has helped to lead them to OUA gold six times since 1996.

The match between the two teams started off with a bang. Blues striker Mario Kovacevic scored the first point of the game within the first four minutes, although the goal was later retracted after Kovacevic was called for goalie interference.

After Blues midfielder Dylan Bams scored the first official goal of the game later in the first half, the game kicked into high gear.

“We were more comfortable with that lead, and we knew that the game was going to open up that much more,” said Blues striker Alexander Raphael.

Unfortunately for Western, their perseverance didn’t pay off, with the Blues scoring two more points to win the game 3–1 in the end. Western was however able to get a single goal towards the end of the game, denying Toronto a shut out.

“I thought we played well in terms of passing of the ball,” said Capotosto. “But I thought we soaked up a little bit too much pressure in the second half and so we got away from things a bit.”

When asked about the Blues chances against the Lions if they were to meet up in the final on Sunday, Raphael said, “York’s a team that’s similar to us. They keep it on the deck and they move it quickly. Whichever team is more organized and whoever wants to battle harder is going to take that game.”

York entered the tournament as the favourites to win. Coming off a 12-game winning streak, the Lions were expected to dominate the Ryerson Rams in their semifinal game.

The previous match-up between the two teams had led to a 7–1 victory for York, and while the Rams were ranked third overall in the West Division, they had failed to place in the CIS top 10. York was ranked second in the country coming into the semifinals.

The Lions were confident heading into the game, and Head Coach Carmine Isacco predicted a “battle down to the final four. Nothing’s a given, and we have enough to get it done but that doesn’t mean we will. Ryerson’s a good team. We’re going to have to be at our best.”

Isacco was sure of what the team’s plan was going to be though: “Our strategy is to go out there and win the game. That’s it.”

The Rams, however, were coming in on the high of their best season in 40 years. Having not placed higher than fourth in the province since 1968, the Rams were expected to face a tough game against the Lions.

Coach Ivan Joseph is only in his second season coaching the Rams, and while the team has improved since his entrance, they were still seen as disadvantaged against the storied York team.

The match-up between the two teams played out with a fevered energy, and with the Rams pressing the whole way through. While the York team had a strong presence on the field, they spent most of the game in a back-and-forth battle against the Rams players, who refused to go down without a fight.

By the time Ryerson midfielder Adrian Mancini finally scored the first point of the game in the middle of the second half, the crowd was barely able to contain themselves. With the Rams fans screaming their praises and the Lions fans hurling abuse at the referees, the game looked like it could be an upset in favour of the underdog Rams.

But as the minutes ticked on, the Rams appeared to lose some of their edge, and after midfielder Ashkan Mahboubi was given a red card for an infraction, the Lions quickly picked up momentum and scored two goals within the last five minutes.

“I think the 10-man down was definitely a factor. It’s unfortunate. You play York at home, things don’t always go the way they’re supposed to. Sometimes it goes your way, and sometimes it doesn’t. Today wasn’t a good day,” said Joseph, gesturing towards his furry black boaters cap, “Maybe it was the hat.”

Despite the loss, Joseph didn’t give up hope, and as he looked ahead to the Rams now-determined bronze medal game against the Mustangs said, “I’m hoping we can build our spirits up, and get ready. It’s an emotional roller-coaster, but if we do our job, we’ll be ready to play.”

There was a lot riding on this year’s bronze medal game, which is usually a relatively low key event. While it’s typically the top two finishers in the tournament that advance to the CIS championships, as this year’s hosts, the Varsity Blues automatically get a spot.

As the Blues were slated to finish either first or second in the tournament after their semi-final showing, the team that won the bronze medal game was to take one of the spots usually allocated for the title-chasers.

The game got heated quickly, and by the end of regular playing time, the end was nowhere in sight. The two first-half goals, scored by the Rams’ Kevin Souter and the Mustangs’ Niko Mavrikos respectively, were all that made it onto the scoreboard.

Playing two men down in the second half thanks to a pair of red cards, the Rams stuck it to the Mustangs.

“The second half, when [the Rams] had their two men taken out, changed the game,” said Basacco. “Sometimes you think it’s easier, but it tends to be a little more difficult.”

As the clock ticked away in the first half of overtime, Mustangs striker Pat Mroczek put their second goal of the game on the scoreboard, and the Rams seemed to be near the end of their surprising playoff run.

It was a last-minute attempt on goal from Rams defender Markus Molder in the final seconds of stoppage time that tied things up 2–2, and sent the game into a shootout round.

The Rams miraculous underdog story failed to continue beyond York Stadium as defender Jason Morgan lobbed a crucial shot over the crossbar. Joseph was nevertheless presented with the OUA East Division Coach of the Year Award after the game and wasn’t disappointed at all.

“To come back two men down and take it to PKs, that’s a testament of this team’s character,” said Joseph. “I feel real proud.”

As for the Mustangs, they’re “going to take this win and bring it to nationals,” according to Ryerson’s choice as Western Player of the Game, goalkeeper Andrew Murdoch.

Twenty minutes later, the Varsity Blues and the Lions — both ready to join the Mustangs in the CIS championships — set off on a significantly less eventful chase for the Blackwood Cup and 2010 OUA title.

The first half kept the fans in their seats, and when the referee blew the whistle, the scoreboard hadn’t moved. While the second moved at a relatively faster pace, it was still nil-nil at the end of regular playing time.

After playing out a frustrating overtime period, it was ultimately U of T who stole the show in an intense shootout round.

“We played a tremendous game, had a tremendous win, and I’m so very proud of our players, our team, and our staff,” said Head Coach Capotosto. “We’ve been on the receiving end of some bad losses in finals in the past. Today’s our day.”

Game 1: U of T vs. Western

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The University of Toronto Varsity Blues men’s soccer team stuck it to the Western Mustangs 3–1 Saturday morning at York Stadium to advance to the OUA final the following Sunday afternoon.

U of T set the tone of the game just four minutes in, when midfielder Ezequiel Lubocki sent a corner kick out to striker Mario Kovacevic, who headed it into the net. Kovacevic, however, was called for interference and the goal was disallowed.

It wasn’t until the 41st minute of play that Varsity Blues midfielder Dylan Bams opened the scoring as he converted a pass from second-year midfielder, and the OUA East Division’s Most Valuable Player, Darragh McGee.

The Blues 1–0 lead over the Mustangs going into the second half meant that there was no mercy out on the field.

According to Mustangs Head Coach Rock Basacco, the turning point in the game came when the Blues star striker Alexander Raphael lined up for a penalty shot after Mustangs defender Paul D’Amario fouled Blues defender Michael Brathwaite in the box as he was driving towards the goal.

“I sent Braithwraite down on the wing. I knew we’d either get a cross in and finish like that, or he was going to draw the penalty, which he did,” explained Raphael. “As soon as that happened, I stepped up, sent the goalie the other way, and put it in the back of the net.”

A lob-shot from midfielder Jagger Hassan got the Mustangs on the board, but because it came only minutes after Kovacevic got the Blues a third goal on a breakaway, the moment was bittersweet. The game wrapped up with a score of 3–1 Toronto.

“You have to give credit to Toronto. They played very well,” said Mustangs Head Coach Rock Basacco.

Game 2: Ryerson vs. York

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In an intense do-or-die match up, the York Lions men’s soccer team proved why they were ranked number two in the country as they slipped by the Ryerson Rams 2–1 Saturday afternoon at York Stadium in the OUA semi-final.

The game was intense from the get-go and didn’t let up until the final minutes of play, as the teams battled for control of the field. Going into halftime, the scoreboard hadn’t moved at all.

Although it was Rams midfielder Adrian Mancini who stepped the game up a notch and opened the scoring in the 60th minute of play, it was the red-card given to Ashkan Mahboubi after his second infraction in the 77th minute that gave the Lions the advantage over the now 10-man squad. Only five minutes later, Lions defender Jamaal Smith was presented with a yellow card for hitting the sideline referee.

With just five minutes left in regular time, the Lions’ Adrian Pena turned the entire game around when he sent a penalty kick into bottom left corner of the net. Fourth-year defender Gerard Ladiyou sealed the win for the Lions in the final minute of the game when he beat out the Rams defense and scored a surprise goal, making the final score 2–1.

“We didn’t expect it that soon after, but we would have went into overtime with a man more for 30 minutes, so we knew it was coming,” said Adrian Pena, the star striker of the Lions and the Most Valuable Player in the OUA West Division.

“I thought we played really well. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work out your way,” said Rams Head Coach Ivan Joseph. “It’s never about what’s best, it’s can we play to our potential, and we did today.”

“You have to give credit to Toronto. They played very well,” said Mustangs Head Coach Rock Basacco.

Game 3: Western vs. Ryerson

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Putting an end to the Cinderella story that was the Ryerson Rams men’s soccer team, the Western Mustangs stole the OUA bronze by one goal in a shoot-out Sunday morning at York Stadium.

With a berth in the CIS championships at stake, neither team showed any mercy and, as a result, the referee handed out more than just a handful of cards.

Ryerson opened the scoring when midfielder Kevin Souter blasted the ball into the back of the net in the 10th minute. Western, unable to penetrate the Rams defense earlier in the half, tied it up with five minutes until the whistle thanks to a goal from striker Niko Mavrikos.

At halftime, the score was tied 1–1, and the next 45 minutes brought nothing but a slew of cards for the Rams.

While the initial was a yellow dealt to Rams defender Dimitri Karopoulos in the first half, the next five included two reds and knocked the Rams down to nine men going into overtime.

The first 15 minutes brought a goal from Western striker Pat Mroczek, and as the clock counted down the final moments of the second, the 2–1 win was just within Western’s grasp.

It was in the last second of stoppage time that the Rams seemed like they might actually pull off the biggest upset of the soccer season. As Rams defender Markus Molder sent the ball barreling past Mustang goalie Andrew Murdoch, the referee blew the whistle, and the game was miraculously tied 2–2.

In an intense shootout, the final blow to the Rams came when defender Jason Morgan, who broke down immediately after, shot the ball over the crossbar and gave the Mustangs the CIS berth they had been hoping for.

“It’s finally nice to get a win and a chance to get back to nationals. We haven’t been there in a couple years and its been a long wait,” said Mustangs Head Coach Rock Basacco.

“We’re looking forward to [CIS]. This was our goal from the beginning of the year,” added Mustangs midfielder Dan Frankel.

And as for the Rams, “They fought, they came back hard, and I’m really proud of their efforts,” said Head Coach and OUA East Division Coach of the Year Ivan Joseph.

Game 4: York vs. U of T

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The last game of the OUA Final Four tournament ended in shoot-out victory for the University of Toronto men’s soccer team against the York Lions at York Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

As the two teams struggled to dominate the field for the majority of the first half, it became evident that this game was one of possession, and it wasn’t until the 36th minute that fans got to see some action.

Blues midfielder Darragh McGee was booked after a dirty tackle on Lions midfielder Selvin Lammie inside the box, and his standout teammate Adrian Pena lined up to take the shot.

“When I step up I’m very confident,” said Pena earlier in the tournament. “I just tune everything out, and make the PK.”

That wasn’t the case for the star striker this time — U of T goalie John Smits dove to block the ball as it flew across the grass towards the bottom left of the net.

At the end of the half, the teams were locked in a nil-nil draw for the OUA title.

In the second half, the Blues created scoring chance after scoring chance, but Lions goalkeeper Sotiri Varlokostas was up for the challenge. As the game moved into injury time, neither team had managed to make it onto the scoreboard.

Overtime brought drama for the Lions. Pena was given a yellow card for kicking Blues star Raphael on the ground, while his teammates D’Mello, Lammie, and Badat missed back-to-back-to-back opportunities to wrap up the game.

As anticipated, the game was the second of the day to move on to a shootout round. The Lions opened with a surprising miss from Branko Majstorovic, but Varlokostas kept his team in the game when he deflected the next shot from the Blues’ Geoffrey Borgmann.

It was a combination of a shocking tip-of-the-toe save by Smits, and another less than mediocre shot from Pena, that finally ended the Lions bid for tha OUA title, and gave the Blues their first since 2002.

“In the shootout, that’s when I’m most calm actually,” said Smits, who was honoured by the York squad as Blues Player of the Game. “When my teammates were out there taking the PKs, I wasn’t worried for a second.”

The Blues are set move on to the CIS championships next weekend, but Head Coach Anthony Capotostos admitted he hasn’t thought that far ahead yet.

“We’re looking forward to the tournament and it puts us in great position as the OUA champions,” said Capotostos.