By Ethan Diamandas
It started as a low rumble, but soon the bleachers began to shake.
Centre-back Tareq Hamad took a few strides backward, his eyes fixed on the keeper. After four Carleton players had scored and the Thunderbirds had just missed, the fate of the game – and the hometown Ravens’ gold medal aspirations – rested on his right foot.
From the moment starting lineups were announced, the home crowd at the Ravens’ Perch in Ottawa was on its feet and making noise. Now, some fans had left their seats and gravitated towards the touch lines, audibly ready for the game’s tensest moment.
When Hamad sprinted forward, stutter-stepped and drilled the ball into the back of the net past UBC’s crumpled keeper, the stadium erupted. Fans stormed the pitch, rolls of papers soared from the stands, people screamed, people hugged. Pandemonium.
It was a moment of raw excitement – the Ravens, once down two goals, had comeback to steal Thursday’s quarterfinals match from UBC 3-2 in penalties.
“These moments are the games that we want to be in,” said Ravens’ midfielder and team captain Ricky Comba. “We had our support out backing us the whole night, friends and family, there’s so much going on.
“The guys were just able to channel that into our football … it showed a lot of character, a lot of heart.”
Carleton has an opportunity to win the program’s first national gold medal. Raising the stakes even higher is that the team is trying to do so on its home turf.
While the victory over UBC was a big deal, it’s only the first of three that Carleton needs to capture the prize it’s after.
“We’re a very emotionally driven team,” Ravens head coach Kwesi Loney said. “We knew that it was going to be a tough game to begin with … so I’m really proud of my boys and what they were able to accomplish.”
The finish was about as thrilling as a soccer match can get, but the route to get there was nearly as heart-racing as the penalties themselves, especially given the hole the Ravens found themselves in right away.
UBC immediately pressured the Ravens, who seemed rusty in the early minutes of their first match in 12 days. Carleton would go down 2-0 within the first 25 minutes.
Trailing at halftime, Loney delivered an animated message to his players.
“The message for us at halftime was just understanding that we hadn’t played our best football yet,” Loney said. “And just to believe in what we were doing, believe in our process from day one. And that’s what brought us to this moment.
“Once we were able to settle, the second half did turn for us and we started to build confidence and the belief to play a great game.”
The reminder sunk in, as the Ravens’ second half play looked much more fluid than the first 45 minutes. In the 61st minute, striker Gabriel Bitar made a sharp cut near the top of the box and drilled a low liner into the bottom corner to cut the lead in half
As Bitar ran towards midfield in celebration he kissed the Raven emblem on his jersey and fired up the crowd.
Just like that, the Ravens had life.
Shortly after, Hamad capitalized on a corner kick in the 66th minute, heading the ball into the back of the net, then leaping in the air and immediately sprinting towards the Ravens’ cheering section.
That momentum carried into overtime, where the Ravens had multiple chances in the box but couldn’t score. It would last through to penalty kicks, where the club’s resilience eventually won out.
The early part of the national tournament was full of parity. Two other games went to overtime, but the end result will see the Montreal Carabins square off against the Guelph Gryphons at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, while the Ravens draw the Cape Breton Capers at 4:30 p.m.
Loney said his team will use Friday’s off-day to rest up a bit.
“(We’ll get) light training in to make sure that we have a better understanding of the opposition and just get prepared for Saturday,” he said. “That’s our focus right now.”
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