By Ethan Diamandas
There’s no need to hype up the scope of the national soccer championships to Ravens players, mostly because they’ve been here before.
“They’re all competitive athletes, so that’s why they’re here,” said Carleton men’s soccer head coach Kwesi Loney. “We’re very fortunate as a program; we’ve been out here for the last four years, so we have a really good understanding what the tournament is and what it brings.”
The Ravens have been consistent contenders on the national stage, but this season’s U Sports men’s soccer championships come with added weight – Carleton University is hosting for the first time since 2008 and looking to win its first gold medal in school history.
Originally scheduled for 2020 but wiped out due to COVID-19, the national tournament welcomes eight teams from across Canada to square off at the Ravens’ Perch.
“To be able to host after a pandemic is exciting because you’re bringing in all the schools from different provinces to compete,” Loney said. “And I don’t think there’s many competitions yet in our country that have been able to do that.”
There’s excitement on Carleton’s campus; tournament staff scrambled to set things up before Thursday’s kickoff and players milled about, trying to keep warm as Ottawa’s temperature plummeted.
There’s also an added dose of angst that comes with competing in games of this magnitude – a sensation that, for one of U Sports’ best players, means the stage is set and he’s ready to work.
“I love (feeling nervous) because it’s a real feeling,” Ravens midfielder Matteo de Brienne told the Ottawa Sports Pages before jogging out for a Wednesday afternoon practice.
Yes, even the 2021 OUA Rookie of the Year who scored one of the most magnificent goals in recent U Sports memory a few weeks ago, gets the jitters.
But as soon as the opening whistle blows, de Brienne’s nervousness gives way to an intense focus he’s leaned on all season – a mindset he’ll need to embrace once more when the Ravens face off against the UBC Thunderbirds on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Carleton enters the national tournament after losing to the Guelph Gryphons, the eventual provincial champions, in the OUA semi-finals on Nov. 6. Now the Ravens will turn their attention to a UBC Thunderbirds squad that posted a pedestrian 4-2-6 record, but cracked nationals by winning out the Canada West qualifying tournament.
“I think (the Thunderbirds) know the quality that we have,” de Brienne said, “so I think they’re going to try to come out very strong and probably try to set the tone very early.”
After the early exit from provincials, the Ravens used their added down time to watch film of their opponents and recharge for the season’s biggest tournament. It’s no different an approach than they’ve taken all season, players said.
“It’s deep in the season, so nothing drastic is ever really going to change at this point,” Ravens midfielder Ricky Comba said. “It’s just sort of focusing in, just tweaking a few things here and there and just making sure our bodies and our minds are ready to go for this.”
Like de Brienne and 21 others listed on Carleton’s 33-man roster, Comba is an Ottawa native – he’s counting on a strong showing from the home crowd to give the Ravens an extra jolt of energy.
“We’re so excited,” Comba said. “We know we’ve got the best alumni in the country, for any sport, and we’re just stoked.
“We’re so pumped up to put on a show for friends and family who’ve been waiting a while for this – just your adrenaline’s there, the excitement’s there, so we’re ready to go.”
If the Ravens defeat UBC on Thursday, they’ll play Saturday against the winner of the matchup between the Laval Rouge et Or and the Cape Breton Capers.
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