Arriving in glass slippers

By Chris Koentges

Robin Slot and his motley squad of girls arrived at the Victoria Laurel Point Inn Wednesday evening for check-in. It had been raining steadily on the island for over a month and the soccer team was dying for a reprieve from the downpour. All they wanted was a good night’s sleep before their first round national championship battle with Dalhousie the next day.

"I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, mister. The only reservation we have is for the University of Alberta Pandas."

Translation: we don’t want your little rag tag club of losers running around the prestigious Laurel Point. Traditionally, this kind of treatment has been reserved for teams like the Bad News Bears.

Earlier in the week, the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union expressed grave reluctance at booking a flight for a team of kids who posted an insulting 4-6 regular season record. The national gala, apparently, is for mature winners only.

What both the CIAU and the decadent Laurel Point Inn failed to realize is that championships are won with grit, not birth certificates; with retribution not reputation.

Head Coach Robin Slot strikes the casual observer as the quintessential Canadian: average brown hair which he might run a comb through if there’s time, a reasonably dark complexion, medium athletic build, round warm face-overall nondescript good looks.

Like most Canadians, it’s easy to mistake Slot’s soft-spoken nature for lack of confidence. Unlike most coaches, he opts out of the standard clich├ęs and false humility.

His program is a model and he’s justifiably proud. Since taking the reins five years ago, he has consistently fielded the best teams in the country, as evidenced by five consecutive Canada West championship appearances. They’ve always blown the big game, though. They’ve never advanced to the final.

Before this season began, Slot was still upset over the previous year’s devastating playoff loss to Alberta. A huge chunk of his team had either graduated or jumped ship for American programs. He was brutally honest in his trepidation at fielding such a young club. Going into the first game against Alberta he was planning to throw Tammie Wilson, a midfielder with no goalkeeping experience, in net.

"This was supposed to be a rebuilding year," he exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief, after getting off an Air Canada flight at the Calgary International Airport Monday evening, a gold medal gleaming around his neck.

The Dinos-composed of an unheralded seven rookies and four sophomores-had no right to their berth at the prestigious national tournament. Destiny, however, knows not of technicality.

The club was lucky to finish fourth in their conference. In years past that would have meant the big try again next year, but 1998 was the first season in the history of Canada West soccer that the playoff format had been expanded from two to four teams.

Of course, finishing fourth meant a Canada West semi-final rendezvous with Alberta, the number one ranked team in the country, the team the CIAU powers that be had already penciled in to the national championship.

They failed to comprehend-as powers that be are wont in situations such as these-that the Dinos were licking their lips at a chance to rumble with Alberta. Alberta, on the other hand, would rather have played anybody but Calgary. The Dinos knew this.

They had physically dominated their hated rival all year. Calgary’s 2-1 semi-final victory was not indicative of the thrashing they laid on the Pandas en route to the western final for the sixth time in six years.

It was the fifth trip, the first as an underdog, to the championship for Dinos’ all-time leading scorer Stephanie O’Neill, one of only two fifth-year players on this year’s edition.

"No one ever gave up," said the veteran striker. "It was a team."

The Victoria Vikings were the one team the Dinos hadn’t beaten in the Canada West this season and they were unable to pull out another miracle in the big game. It didn’t matter, though, there was another technicality riding shotgun. Since Vic would host the national tournament the next week, both teams got a bye to the dance. Cinderella, thy name is the ’98 Dinos.

"It was tough playing that Canada West final because you know you’re advancing anyway," explained Slot.

The game did, however, turn out to be a preview of the national final.

"The west is stronger," explained Assistant Coach Gordon Ramsay, who talked with others in attendance on the ease with which a 4-6 team from the Canada West could advance through their side of the national tournament to the final. "And that’s a comment from the coaches."

It rained non-stop and a thick layer of mud streaked the middle of the field. Mud favors stronger players. Though dwarfed by Victoria’s experience, the Dinos weren’t dwarfed in terms of size.

"There wasn’t really any pressure on us because we were the underdogs," explained defender Leanne Pelosi on the soccer program’s first trip to the national tournament.

Victoria made it through their side of the draw undefeated as well, which set up Sunday afternoon’s epic final.

"Once we got into the final, there was that pressure because we knew what was at stake," said O’Neill.

Opportunities like this don’t come often. O’Neill and Slot ought to know. Not wasting her last shot at a title, the Dinos captain scored two quick goals. Sarah Dunlop added a third and the underdogs found themselves up 3-0 going into the second half.

"I think they expected to win because of their record," remarked Pelosi, last season’s rookie of the year. Despite the early lead, the team was very wary in the dressing room at half-time. "We knew that our second halves hadn’t been great."

The Dinos are not a team that likes to do things the easy way. They squandered leads this season like Grandma Sally squandered welfare cheques at Bingo.

Despite Calgary’s second half alertness, Vic came out like a caged animal. They had nothing left to lose. The pressure was now on the Dinos.

The day before, Slot watched Vic score three second half goals to erase a 1-0 half-time lead against McGill. If anyone was capable of a comeback, it was the Vikings. If anyone was capable of a collapse, it was the Dinos.

"I knew the first 10, 15 minutes were crucial."

Jeanette Hass scored right off the bat on a questionable penalty shot. Then Julie Mizuno scored to bring the Vikings within a goal. All of a sudden Victoria was mounting their own Cinderella story. This wasn’t how the script was supposed to go.

"After the second goal we came together and said, ‘look, let’s not let this one go,’" recalled O’Neill, the terror of the moment quickly flashing across her face.

"For the last 20 minutes it was panic," added Slot.

In addition to waging war with a desperate Viking team, they were now fighting 1,018 decidedly partisan Viking fans. The prospect of a shootout now lingered in the back of their minds.

"The last game we played UVic, we lost on penalty shots," explained Wilson, the improbable goaltender, recalling the Western final loss a week earlier.

The final was the fifth game the team played that week. "It felt like we were there forever," she added.

Somehow they managed to tap a buried reservoir of grit. Hundreds of hours of suicide sprints paid off. The masseuse the team brought in the day before also paid off.

"That made a major contribution to the rejuvenation," explained Ramsay. But it couldn’t prepare them for the onslaught they now faced. Victoria brought their goalie up and the Dinos were boxed in by the extra attacker. They struggled desperately to knock the ball out of their own end, running around like a Barnum and Bailey plate spinner. Time finally expired and none of the plates fell.

"It was panic right until the end," grinned Wilson.

"I’m happy," said Pelosi, looking down with mild curiosity at the gold medal around her neck, the accomplishment yet to fully sink in. "I’m shocked."

"The girls started believing," explained Slot, who was greeted by his dog at the baggage claim. "It just kept going and going."

"Maybe it’s just that the percentages caught up," he continued, now pensive. "There’s no fluke in it, it’s just the hard work. If players are willing to sacrifice, you win."

"No one ever gave up," said O’Neill, looking with wonder toward her coach, before saying again, "It was a team effort."

It may have been a team effort but one player certainly stood out over others. Looking toward O’Neill, the most talented player Slot has ever had the honour of coaching, he talked about Wilson. "She’s the Most Valuable Player of this team just because of the position we put her in."

O’Neill smiled.

"I wasn’t expected to be perfect," Wilson explained, fingering a fresh gash on her forehead, courtesy of a Charlotte Haley cleat on a precarious cross. Victory doesn’t come cheap.

"I’ve never even been a backup goalie," she laughed. "It’s pretty ironic."

Don’t you think?

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