The No. 3 Ryerson Rams men’s soccer team will return to the OUA Final Four championship for the fourth straight season this weekend.
After cruising through the regular season to a school-best 14-1-1 record, the Rams’ OUA East quarter-final matchup versus the Queen’s Gaels went right to the wire.
Technically past the wire, as the game needed extra time before it was decided by an Andrew Dias cross that found the back of the net thanks to a game-winning finish by OUA all-star Jamie Baker.
With the win, the Rams stamped their ticket to the OUA Final Four, which they will be hosting at Birchmount Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 5 and Sunday, Nov. 6.
As the top seed in the East Division, the team will cross over and play the second seed from the West Division, the Guelph Gryphons, in the OUA semifinal.
The two sides didn’t meet in the regular season.
It will be a test of offence versus defence as the Gryphons scored the most goals (57), while the Rams, led by OUA East first-team all-star netminder Praveen Ahilan, allowed the fewest goals against (8).
Head coach Filip Prostran said he doesn’t want to dwell on statistics and regular season accolades though, because “in playoffs everything is different.”
On top of that, comparing Guelph and Ryerson is tough because each team is in its own conference with vastly different competition.
“We aren’t playing the same teams … take [the statistics] with a grain of salt,” said Prostran. “A big thing to remind our guys is that when you look at papers and stat sheets, they don’t tell the whole story.”
And while the Gryphons led the league in goals, the Rams finished just behind them with 51.
“I expect a tight game and two teams that are just going to go for it … they are who they are and so are we,” said Prostran.
Nationals will be hosted by the Gryphons, meaning the Guelph team has an automatic entry into the tournament. But based on the way they played in their quarter-final match against McMaster, the team doesn’t seem to be holding back.
“Guelph is playing so loose right now,” said Prostran. “You see teams play tight in the playoffs who don’t want to make a mistake, but they have an ace in the deck up their sleeve they can pull out, they are still good and going to nationals.”
The Final Four hasn’t been kind to the Rams in recent years. They have been eliminated in the semifinal for three straight years. To make it to Nationals later this month, the Rams will need to win one game this weekend, either the semifinal or the bronze-medal match.
Prostran, who was named OUA East coach of the year for the second consecutive year on Wednesday, says this year’s squad is more united and has faced more adversity than in years past, which will be the big difference maker in this season’s playoff campaign.
“We had every reason to fold in that Queen’s game. We’re the heavy favourite, we can’t score, we miss the penalty shot, get a red card,” he recalled from Sunday’s quarter-final game. “We could have said it wasn’t our day, the ref this the ref that, but the guys kept battling. The ability to rise above adversity and be united – that’s the biggest difference.”
“[The team] still feels the pain from past years, they’ve been there and the wound is still fresh. They are looking for redemption for sure.”
Scouting Report: The Gryphons
The Gryphons finished the regular season with a 12-2-2 record and were ranked fourth in the most recent U Sports ranking, one place behind the Rams.
On their road to the Final Four, the Gryphons defeated the two-time defending OUA silver medallist McMaster Marauders in their quarter-final matchup.
The Gryphons are led by the one-two punch of OUA West second-team all-star forwards Jace Kotsopoulos and Tomasz Skublak, who scored 47 per cent of the Gryphon’s goals this season. Kotsopoulos led the league in scoring with 17 goals, while Skublak netted 10. No two players in the country combined for as many goals this season.
Scouting Report: The Lions and Varsity Blues
Facing off in the other semifinal are the York Lions and the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.
The Lions enter the Final Four as the top seed in the West and are heavily favoured to win after hosting the Blackwood Cup in each of the last three years. Led by midfielder and OUA West Division MVP Jonathan Lao, the Lions will look to become the first team to win four straight OUA titles since the Western Mustangs from 1996 to 1999.
This will be the third straight semifinal meeting between the Lions, who are ranked No. 1 in the most recent U Sports Top 10 rankings, and the rival No. 5 University of Toronto Varsity Blues. York holds the upper hand recently over the Blues, having defeated them 2-0 in 2014 and by a score of 1-0 last year.
After a 12-2-2 regular season record, the Blues advanced to the semis following a 2-1 win over the Carleton Ravens in the quarter-finals, while the Lions cruised to a 3-0 victory over the Western Mustangs.
The Lions and the Varsity Blues will kick off the championship weekend on Saturday, Nov. 5 at noon.