On the surface, it was just a regular-season game worth three points in the standings.
But for the Winnipeg Wesmen and Manitoba Bisons women’s soccer teams, playing their season openers meant a whole lot more than that.
It signified that the Canada West is officially back.
The pandemic ripped away the 2020 season from athletes across many different sports, but it’s time to put all of those team Zoom calls and home workouts to good use as the soccer season has officially arrived and other Canada West sports such as football, volleyball, basketball and hockey are currently preparing for their return to competition in the coming weeks or months.
"It has given me a chance to almost fall in love with the sport again because it’s been so long since we’ve been able to play in a Canada West or U Sports game," said Bisons soccer captain Jessica Tsai.
"Being on the field again and having all those people around was really something special. That game, not only was it the start of our season, but we’re the first U of M sports season to play again. It’s not just the start of our season, it’s the start of all university sports again which made it even more special."
The Herd hosted the Regina Cougars on the weekend at their turf field at the U of M and split the series, winning the opener 3-1 before falling 1-0 the next day.
Over at the Waverley Complex, the Wesmen played a pair of matches with the Saskatchewan Huskies. The sides played to a scoreless tie in Game 1 but Saskatchewan roared back in the series finale with a 4-0 victory.
It was the first conference soccer match the Wesmen and Bisons have played since October, 2019.
"It was almost a surreal feeling. I know even the night before and the morning of, I was on edge the entire time. I almost couldn’t eat but I knew I kind of had to force myself to so I could actually play," said fourth-year Wesmen defender Chantal Boulet.
"It’s so nice being back to playing sports. Even the volleyball teams and the basketball teams at the university, they’re practising and getting ready for the season too so seeing everything come together is a great feeling."
While they’re back in action, not everything is the same. All Canada West participants must be fully vaccinated to participate this year. This season will see the local soccer programs play in a Manitoba-Saskatchewan division with the Huskies and Cougars. Basketball and volleyball are taking a similar approach to the schedule as well.
A normal year would see the Bisons and Wesmen women’s soccer teams even play the odd exhibition game against an American opponent, but that’s not in the cards for 2021.
"I would say a bummer is the perfect way to describe it. I love going on planes, going to Calgary, Edmonton and places in B.C... I think it’ll feel like a longer season since we’re playing the the same teams over and over again which honestly, I think makes the league more unpredictable," Boulet said.
"When you play the same team over and over again, the results aren’t going to be the same and you’re not going to play the same every time. It’s almost like you get a chance to redeem yourself after a loss or whatever the case is."
It is, however, a throwback to the GPAC days and could lead to some rivalries being rekindled.
"You can even tell already, in the second game that there are players who are not out for vengeance, but they’re playing a little more aggressive today, or they’re a little more angry today, than they were the day before. I think those rivalries are already building even after two games," said Boulet.
There were some signs of rust on the opening weekend as the Bisons failed to convert on two penalty kick opportunities in their second game but overall, coaches and players were pleased with how things went down.
"I think that considering everything we went through, and every player and staff member were affected in different ways, not only physically, but mentally and how hard all those lockdowns were on people, I was very happy to see the type of performance they brought this weekend," said Bisons head coach Vanessa Martinez Lagunas.
Coaches are also ecstatic to be back, but entering a season off of a long layoff does present some new obstacles.
"Training and playing games is very different. Running on your own and playing particularly at this level is very different," said Wesmen head coach Amy Anderson.
"Knowing we’re expecting kids to play back to back is going to be a challenge for every program. Our advantage might be that we have a young team so we have that enthusiasm, but in the back of my head, I’m always thinking about injuries, prevention and just taking care of their health and mental health."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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