Saturday, September 7 vs. UOttawa

By the time University of Ottawa Gee-Gees star Mikayla Morton opened the scoring in the 28th minute, it seemed like the floodgates would open and that last season’s USPORTS champions would wash the U of T Varsity Blues. Up to that point, the Gee-Gees had been superior in every department, deftly dancing through the Blues’ midfield and forcing defensive errors with a high press. 

Instead, the goal served as a catalyst for the Blues who, with the introduction of third-year striker Erin Kelly, grew into the game. Eight minutes after conceding, third-year midfielder Miranda Badovinac scored the equalizer with what turned out to be the game’s final goal. Blues goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis put in an excellent performance to secure the draw, making a number of key saves and snapping the Blues’ four-game losing streak against the Gee-Gees.

The Blues started with a narrow 4-3-3 formation; the lack of width left midfield trio Kristin Parkes, Valentina Greco, and Maddie MacKay unable to spread the ball in the face of constant barrages by the Gee-Gees’ press. When they lost the ball, the trio — perhaps fearing the potency with which the Gee-Gees could break — were unwilling to press their opponents, allowing them free rein to lob the ball to their dynamic attack. 

This double jeopardy prevented the Blues’ midfield from supporting their defence or joining their attack, rendering them largely ineffective for much of the first 30 minutes.

The Gee-Gees exploited this tactical flaw well and, in the 26th minute, a ball from their own half allowed forward Emma Lefebvre to force Blues defender Anna Crone to concede a corner. The Blues defence capitulated following the short corner, with right back Rena Nakajima and centreback Mikayla Ford both out of position in an unsuccessful attempt to play the offside trap. 

The ball was floated into the right of the box, where Gee-Gees midfielder Hailey Walsh and Morton found themselves in acres of space. Walsh received the ball at the edge of the box and Nakajima, closing her down, puzzlingly ducked out of the way of her cross. Ford was equally at fault for the goal, completely missing Morton’s run behind her, which gave the fourth-year Gee-Gees forward ample space to head the ball in, despite Staggolis’ efforts.

Shortly after conceding, the Blues withdrew MacKay and brought on Kelly, who slotted into the centre forward position. Her introduction proved to be a revelation as she produced exceptional hold-up play by using her physicality to stave off a number of Gee-Gees tackles. 

Kelly marauded down the right flank and forced a corner after dribbling past two players. The Blues’ ensuing corner mimicked the one they had conceded as striker Jenny Wolever found herself unmarked on the far side of the goal. She slammed a shot toward the goal, which goalkeeper Margot Shore spilled into the path of Badovinac, who found the net from four yards out. 

Following the half-time break, the Blues returned a much improved side, pressing as a unit and adopting a more fluid approach off-ball. Nakajima and Ford both made a number of important challenges, as did Crone, who showed good composure and passing. 

Despite their improvement, the Blues still lacked width in the midfield; they opted to address this in the 58th minute by bringing on Daniella Cipriano for Badovinac. Cipriano proved to be an effective conduit between midfield and attack, finding Wolever numerous times with great through balls. In the 69th minute she switched play to Wolever, only for the latter to hit the side netting.

Wolever, who played for the Queen’s Gaels for four years as an undergraduate prior to moving to U of T this summer, was named the Ontario University Athletics East’s Most Valuable Player last year.

The Blues continued to threaten until the 75th minute, but found little joy against both Gee-Gees right back Trinity Esprit, who halted a number of attacks and passed the ball forward well, and midfielder Katherine Bearne, who displayed remarkable dribbling and vision. 

The tide of the game swung in the Gee-Gees’ favour in the last 15 minutes as they searched for the winning goal, but Staggolis remained a colossal figure in the Blues net. She was called into action in the 89th minute, denying Lefebvre from close range. 

While the Blues had their chances to take the lead in the second half, a draw against the country’s best team — to whom they lost to three times last season — is definitely a step in the right direction for a team trying to find its attacking identity following the departures of star players Chelsea Cheung and Natasha Klasios. 

As seen on display at Varsity Stadium, Cipriano and Kelly appear to be the natural choices to support Wolever as the Blues rebuild their attack.

Sunday, September 8 vs. Queen’s

After a hard-fought first half in which Toronto conceded two goals to the Queen’s Gaels, standout rookie Miranda Badovinac scored twice in the second half to tie the match with the Gaels, who are the second-highest ranking team in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA). 

From the first minute, the pressure was on: possession shifted rapidly as the ball found its way to either end of the pitch. Keeper Levanta Staggolis kept the score 0–0 with some quick saves in the first few minutes, impressing spectators and frustrating opponents.

The Blues’ offence was aggressive throughout, with Erin Kelly, Jenny Woelver, and Badovinac, among others, creating shot opportunities. In the early stages of the game, Kelly executed a promising shot on the net, fed by Badovinac thanks to a cross from Wolever. The play was executed with speed, and revealed a well-practiced offensive formation.

“It’s been fun playing with [Wolever] because we’re both new to the team, so it’s been fun… building our own legacy together,” said Badovinac. 

Anna Crone, Mikayla Ford, and Rena Nakajima delivered a series of impressive defensive plays in the first half: in the 26th minute, for example, Nakajima proved her defensive prowess by shutting down a breakaway from Gaels striker Jenna Matsukubo. However, Queen’s slipped through the cracks to score twice. Organization and morale noticeably dwindled after the first Gael goal, but a change in mindset at half-time brought the team back to the same page.

“First half we kind of lost ourselves, we weren’t really focused,” admits Staggolis. “Once those two goals were in, our heads went down. We weren’t into it at all. But our half-time talk got us ready to go.” 

“We had a couple formation changes as well that would allow for more aggressive attacks,” adds Badovinac.

Due to these pivotal half-time changes, Badovinac found her offensive stride, hitting the back of the net twice in the 44th and 63rd minutes. “They were both off of crosses. Just was kind of hoping for the best when I hit [the first one],” said Badovinac. “The other one was from a cross in the air. I was lucky that it hit perfectly to my head and I was able to get something on it.”

“We’re content with the result. Obviously you’re always looking for three points, but we’ll take it,” says Staggolis. 

With a tie granting the Blues one point for their second game of the season, the team is ready for their next game against the University of Ontario Institute of Technology this coming Friday.

Disclaimer: Michael Teoh previously served as Volume 138 Deputy Senior Copy Editor and Volume 139 Business Editor of The Varsity.