Playoff Rundown: Heartbreaks and history as playoffs get started

It was one of the busiest playoff weekends in UBC Thunderbirds history. Both men’s and women’s volleyball, hockey and basketball were in action in either Canada West quarter finals or semi finals. Both men’s and women’s swimming squads were also competing across the Salish Sea at the 2020 U Sports Swimming National Championships, where they were crowned champions for the fourth year in a row.

There was no shortage of clutch plays, overtime periods, heroes and villains, heartbreaks and moments of history. While some squads seasons have come to an end, other teams will make the trip out to various U Sports Nationals Championships across the country.

Men’s Volleyball

The T-Birds will face the Alberta Golden Bears in the next round.
The T-Birds will face the Alberta Golden Bears in the next round. File Arman Sridhar

The men’s squad were the only team that stayed home during reading week, taking on the University of Winnipeg Wesmen in the Canada West quarterfinal. The Wesmen finished their Canada West regular season campaign sixth in the standings with a 12–10 record that included an opening night upset against the Thunderbirds back in October.

The ’Birds ended their regular season on a six-game win streak en route to a 17–5 overall record and a third place finish in the Canada West rankings behind the Trinity Western Spartans and the University of Alberta Golden Bears.

This time around, the ’Birds didn’t hold back and swept the Wesmen in two games at War Memorial Gym. Thursday’s game saw UBC shut out the Wesmen 3–0 (25–18, 25–18, 25–14) with Coltyn Liu recording 16 kills and Ben Hooker putting up 28 assists.

The Wesmen attempted a comeback in Friday’s game, taking the second and third sets after UBC took the first. The ’Birds fought back to force a fifth deciding set, with Liu earning the series clinching point to send the squad into the semifinals against the Golden Bears this weekend in Edmonton.

Women’s Volleyball

File Salomon Micko Benrimoh

The women’s volleyball team travelled to Calgary to face the Mount Royal Cougars in the opening round of the Canada West playoffs. The ’Birds finished off the season with a 13–11 overall record while the Cougars capped off a 21–3 campaign by finishing second in Canada West behind powerhouse Trinity Western.

Friday’s opening game was a battle, going the distance to five sets after the Cougars rallied in the fourth set after the ’Birds took two straight sets. It would be UBC that clawed out the game with the win, taking the last set 15–12 with strong offensive performances coming from Gabrielle Attieh and Anna Price who recorded 17 and 16 kills respectively.

The Cougars came back with a vengeance in Saturday’s game, taking it 3–1 (26–24, 25–17, 23–25, 25–16), to force a winner-take-all game three on Sunday afternoon.

Sunday’s game saw the Cougars take control of the match early, with the visiting team claiming the first set 25–16. The ’Birds fought back but fell 25–22 in each of the next two sets, allowing the Cougars to take the game and the series and book a ticket to the conference semifinals.

It wasn’t the ending the reigning national champions wanted, but the ’Birds still have a young core they should be able to build around in order to come back next year and make a deeper playoff run.

Women’s Hockey

The T-Birds put up a fight against the Pandas but ultimately saw their season come to an end in the Canada West quarter finals.
The T-Birds put up a fight against the Pandas but ultimately saw their season come to an end in the Canada West quarter finals. File Salomon Micko Benrimoh

The Thunderbirds hockey team’s season came to an end with back-to-back losses against the Alberta Pandas.

After sending shockwaves through the conference by beating the third seed University of Saskatchewan Huskies last weekend, both games having gone to overtime, the ’Birds weren’t to be underestimated against the first seed Pandas.

It showed in game one on Friday, with neither team able to get past either’s defence or netminder until a third overtime period when Pandas forward Taylor Anker scored with just under three minutes remaining. Despite the 0–1 loss, it shouldn’t underestimate the absolute killer of a performance that ’Birds goalie Tory Micklash put in, stopping a whopping 47 shots on 48 attempts.

Game two was just as much of a stalemate, with neither team able to score in regulation for the second night in a row. Autumn MacDougall found the net in the first overtime period to beat Micklash and send the Pandas into the Canada West final against Mount Royal Cougars.

It was a heartbreaking end to the season for the ’Birds, who rallied in the playoffs after struggling in the second half of the regular season.

Men’s Hockey

Rylan Toth was unstoppable in the series against Golden Bears
Rylan Toth was unstoppable in the series against Golden Bears Courtesy Tyler Visser/UA Athletics

Since 1978, the UBC Thunderbirds men’s hockey team hasn’t played in the U Sports National Championships. To put that in perspective, there’s been more name changes for U Sports in that time than the ’Birds playing for a national title.

That all changed Sunday night when the ’Birds clinged onto a one-goal lead against the first seed Alberta Golden Bears.

The Golden Bears finished the season with an impressive 23–5–0 record and were consistently ranked as one of the top four teams in the country. UBC finished the season with a 9–14–4 record, sneaking into the playoffs just ahead of the University of Manitoba Bison.

The ’Birds struggled for much of the season, a lack of chemistry present with much of the team in their first or second seasons with the team. Yet, ever since Winter Classic, where the ’Birds trounced the Bison 6–2 in front of a capacity crowd of 5,400 at Thunderbird Arena, the team has played a much tighter but equally aggressive game.

It showed in their Canada West quarter final series last week against the Mount Royal Cougars, where Austin Vetterl was the overtime hero in the ’Birds 5–4 win. But the Golden Bears were still the heavy favourites to advance to the Canada West Final.

That didn’t stop the ’Birds from pushing Alberta to their limits, sending the first game into overtime where this time it would be Jerret Smith that would play the hero and give the ’Birds a 1–0 series lead.

The Golden Bears responded with a vengeance, dominating UBC in game two 6–1 and outshooting the visiting team 31–20. Alberta goalie Matt Berlin didn’t yield any real chances as the Golden Bears forced a third and final game.

Sunday’s third game was much more tightly contested, with both Berlin and UBC goalie Rylan Toth standing their ground. The ’Birds started the third period on the powerplay and while they couldn’t convert on it right away, Tyler Sandhu cracked the 'Berlin Wall' after sending a puck off a weird bounce past the Golden Bears netminder soon after.

The ’Birds held on for the rest of the period, with Toth making more than a few miraculous saves and even a close call where the puck hit all three posts on two consecutive shots. The 2–1 win is without a doubt the biggest shock in the country and sends the ’Birds through the national championships in Halifax for the first time in 42 years.

They’ll also try to claim the Canada West crown this weekend against the Saskatchewan Huskies, with both teams already qualified for U Sports nationals.