The University of Victoria Vikes women’s rugby team are just one game away from CIS Qualification and will have to put their season on the line in the Canada West semifinals against the CIS No. 9-ranked Alberta Pandas on Oct. 23. The Canada West playoffs are hosted at Ellerslie Rugby Park in Edmonton, Alta. The Vikes finished the regular season in third spot with an even record of 2-2, while the Pandas were ahead in second place at 3-1. CIS No. 6 Calgary, the Canada West top seed, will play Lethbridge in the other semifinal match up.

Both Alberta and Victoria are no strangers to each other, meeting in pre-season and most recently on Oct. 18 in Victoria. The Pandas took both match-ups against the Vikes, winning the latter of the two games 34-28 this past weekend on Oct. 18.

This weekend’s winners moves on to the Canada West gold-medal game on Oct. 25 at 12:00 p.m. pacific time. The bronze medal match between the two losing semifinal sides will be played at 10:00 a.m. on Oct. 25. The two Canada West finalists will ultimately qualify for the CIS Women’s Rugby Championship at Queen’s University from Nov. 4-8 in Kingston, Ont. The Vikes women have only made one appearance at the CIS Championship, in 2005, when current Vikes women’s rugby head coach Brittany Waters was named to the CIS All-Star team.

“I expect the semifinal against the Pandas to be a fight until the last whistle,” said Waters about playing the six-time CIS champions. “Alberta is an experienced side with quite a few athletes that have played in the Canada West finals and the CIS National Championship before.”

The Vikes entered the start of the 2015 Canada West season with a lot of unknowns and just four players in fourth or fifth year. The team started as a young squad with a lot of first years in starting positions, including the talents of newcomers Nakisa Leval at fly half and Gabrielle Senft at eight-man.

Levale for the Vikes has been a threat on attack all season and relentless on defence. She has been a crucial piece to the Vikes’ roaster alongside Senft, who has proven to be one of their top scorers this season with three tries.

The Vikes haven’t been without leadership of the veterans due to the influx of first years in the starting 15. Fly half and second-year Vike Jess Neilson has contributed greatly in the passing and kicking department – converting 13-out-of-16 extra-point attempts. Neilson is currently second in conference scoring with 26 points. Starting Vikes third year in the second row Caitlin Harvey has played a significant ole stepping up as a prop and being a leader for the forwards. Madeleine Graham is currently tied for second in the Canada West in try scoring with four this season.

Much like the Vikes women’s rugby squad itself, Waters has had to find the right blend for her young side as a first year head coach with the Vikes.

“I was aware at the beginning of the year of the talent and athleticism of the individuals we had, but I wasn’t sure how quickly they would gel as a team,” added Waters. “I have been impressed with how the team has developed and improved each game.”

Last season the Vikes qualified for the Canada West playoffs and came home with a historic bronze medal after a 27-16 win over UBC. This year the team will hope to improve on that record and improve with a CIS qualification. Alberta on the other hand are the three-time defending Canada West champions, winning gold since 2012. Amanda Smith, Julia Goss and Elizabeth Steel are the top scorers for the Pandas with 20 points and four tries each this season.

“We are going to Edmonton as the underdogs, but I believe in this young squad and I am looking forward to a strong performance.”

The Canada West semifinal between the Vikes and Pandas will be played at Ellerslie Rugby Park on Oct. 23 at 2:00 p.m. pacific time.

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