You might call it a hunch. Could have been a premonition. Maybe even a sign from the soccer gods.
Whatever it was, something told Carey Gustafson that instead of playing for Canada at the 2005 World University Games in Turkey until the end of August, her attention should be on kicking off her final year in Canada West as captain of the Victoria Vikes at the beginning of September.
“I kind of was like, ‘You know what, I think I’m just going to take this opportunity and make sure I’m ready to be my best coming into this season,'” says Gustafson, who was returning from a lengthy injury recovery.
“There was just something intuitive that I knew we had a team that could (win the championship) that year, so I decided not to go to Turkey when the opportunity was presented and just focused on knowing that was something I wanted to achieve that year.”
And thus foreshadowed the University of Victoria women’s soccer team’s greatest season, a well-told tale of turning trial into triumph marked by moments of fate that would ultimately culminate just as Gustafson envisioned.
“There was a lot of us on that team that had grown up in Victoria playing together, playing against each other, and we had grown from our losses,” says Gustafson, who was one of nine members of the 2005 Vikes in their fourth or fifth year. “I think it was just an accumulation of a lot of things where we had been resilient for so long that it was our time.”
That heavy presence of battle-scarred vets, complimented by some youthful audacity, and led by legendary coach Tracy David, won Canada West silver in Calgary, then went to Edmonton for nationals, advanced to the championship match and dominated the Ottawa Gee-Gees 3-0 to capture the Gladys Bean Memorial Trophy.
“From hitting the mark in Edmonton, there was just a feeling that we never really spoke about but all of us had, that we could actually win this thing,” says Gustafson, a midfielder.
Victoria’s coronation as Canadian university soccer’s queens of The Beautiful Game was a long time coming: Every season since 2002, the Vikes had finished among the top three in conference standings and reached Canada West Final Four, though they hadn’t been able to take the next step, qualifying for nationals and a shot at the championship.
Initially, it didn’t look like that would change in 2005, either.
Seven matches into their schedule, the Vikes were just 3-4, in a totally unfamiliar sub-.500 position after dropping road games to Saskatchewan and Alberta on the first weekend of October.
“Coming back to practice Tuesday, (assistant coach) Dave Dew had a moment with a few of us that was like, ‘You guys have a decision to make right now: you can either let the season fold and move on, or you can turn it around today,'” Gustafson recalls.
“It was a pivotal moment for a few of us seniors that were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the make-or-break-point to get to where we wanted to go and from there it was just like this thing got put into motion that we couldn’t deny.”
Victoria went without defeat, 7-0-2, over its final nine games to finish second in the conference and secure yet another trip to Canada West Final Four, which featured a fortuitous new twist; nationals was expanding from six to eight teams, meaning the winners of both Canada West semifinals would automatically book a spot in the Canadian championship tournament.
Victoria seized the opportunity, qualifying for its first nationals since 2000 by beating Trinity Western 2-1 in a semifinal decided on penalty kicks. Penalties were needed in the gold medal match too, only this time the Vikes came up short, with the host Calgary Dinos recording a 1-0 victory to win the conference title.
The result was the first loss in eleven matches for Victoria, and it was quickly put in perspective on the team’s return flight to Vancouver Island.
The Vikes’ plane had began descent into a heavy fog that made seeing anything out of the passenger windows impossible. Without warning, it quickly touched down before the pilot decided it wasn’t safe to land and immediately pulled the plane back up.
“Half the flight screamed,” recalls Gustafson. “It was a moment where a lot of us were like, ‘Oh my gosh.'”
The flight circled the airport until it was safe to land. No one was hurt, but the players, who had already matured so much during the season, grew up an awful lot more that night.
“That … is pretty ingrained in most of our minds,” adds Gustafson.
“It was a long emotionally drawn out weekend for us.”
Only a couple days later, the team was back in the air en route to nationals, which would take place at the University of Alberta’s Foote Field, the same pitch that a deflated Vikes squad left to do some serious introspection nearly six weeks earlier.
“Edmonton was the pivotal turning point,” Gustafson notes. “Maybe it was supposed to be there for the end result.”
Victoria knocked off York 1-0 in the quarter-finals, they got by McGill 2-1 in a semifinal to reach the final against the Gee-Gees.
On the morning of the gold medal match, that gut feeling Gustafson had well before even training camp began was affirmed by her young teammates Sarah Cameron and Mora Hood.
“We were at our team meeting and they were so excited, it just kind of radiated through the rest of us,” the former captain says. “Their attitude was so infectious, it’s like, ‘We’re going to win this’.
“I’ve always been intuitive as to how the game is going to go, and for the first time in a long time I knew we were going to win that day. There was no question whatever happened we were going to end up with the gold.”
Fourth-year Liz Hansen scored the winning goal for Victoria just 27 minutes into the match, senior Amelie Mercier doubled the lead nine minutes later, and rookie Janelle Smith sealed it by putting the Vikes ahead 3-0 in the 84th minute.
Moments later they walked off Foote Field again, only this time as champions.
At long last.
“It was just like, ‘Wow’,” says Gustafson, who was named MVP of the tournament. “After all of the hard work, after all of the sprints and hill runs and moments where we thought we were going to throw up, it was just all worth it…
“It really was worth every blood, sweat, and tear.”
The 2017 edition of the Vikes will be looking to capture national gold as well. They head to Winnipeg after Canada West silver this past weekend at the CW WSOC Final Four. The Vikes get their tournament underway this Thursday at 10:30 a.m. against the Cape Breton Capers.
All of the tournament games can be watched live at USPORTS.live