When many Edmontonians think of sports in the City of Champions, names such as Messier, Gretzky, the Oilers, Oil Kings and Eskimos come to mind. If one delves a bit further, the Edmonton Rush, the Capitals of recent years and Edmonton Huskies/Wildcats football programs are fairly obvious picks. Several of these teams turn in excellent seasons, and we have reason to be proud of their accomplishments and contributions to city culture. However, the south side of the North Saskatchewan River features another set of athletes that are easily in the same category as the teams listed above. Moreover, these teams have experienced unprecedented success of late, turning in Canadian and Western Canadian championships in the last week alone.
Since late-February, the Bears and Pandas varsity sports teams have experienced several highs and lows, both exceeding and falling below expectations of many University of Alberta fans. In 2011, the Bears hockey team failed to qualify for the CIS (national) Championships, a stunning blow to one of the most dominant hockey programs in Canada. This year, the Bears throttled Calgary and then edged Saskatchewan 2-1 in the Canada West championship due in no small part to the play of goalie Kurtis Mucha, who went about one month without allowing a goal. In Pandas hockey, however, the varsity squad fell 2-1 in a series to defending CIS champions Calgary, which features Hayley Wickenheiser and several other star players from across the world. Other surprising losses took place with Bears basketball, which faded toward the end of the season before mounting a near upset win in a playoff series against UBC. Another blip in team performance took place with Bears volleyball, which dropped their first CIS game to Laval, the eventual CIS champions. These are the sorts of swings that make CIS sports incredible to watch; you just never know what will transpire. One needs only look south of the border to see similar results taking place: Appalachian State defeating Michigan to open the 2007 NCAA football season, the Butler Bulldogs qualifying for consecutive NCAA basketball title games during March Madness and the recent fall from grace of the Kentucky Wildcats in NCAA basketball.
What is perhaps most amazing about university/college sports is that these players somehow find the time to balance full or near-full courseloads with training, travel and competition. Whether it’s studying in the bus or in the hotel, players that care about their studies simply have to find time. Though stressful no doubt, this hustle and bustle is really what makes university, university. One might feel that the loads of coursework due in the upcoming week cannot conceivably be accomplished; however, one always finds a way. University is about growing not only intellectually, but socially, and the atmosphere of competitive varsity-level sport is certainly conducive to this.
Which is why the recent weekend was outstanding in many ways for Bears and Pandas athletics. Just listen to this. Over the past weekend, the Bears hockey team claimed the Canada West hockey championship, defeating Saskatchewan 5-0 and 5-2. Though Bears volleyball lost its opening match to Laval, they stormed back and throttled Montreal and Trinity Western, taking the consolation final for the CIS Championship. In wrestling, the Pandas finished second in the CIS and the Bears first, the last CIS title being in 1972. With both the Bears and Pandas, the fight for first took place in a heated competition against Brock, a small Ontario university known for its wrestling and running programs. Both the Bears and Pandas curling teams recently won Canada West championships as well. But perhaps the best story is that of Pandas volleyball, where the team finished 15-7 on the season and was forced to climb its way to the CIS competition in Sherbrooke. After taking the third and final CIS berth from the Canada West Conference over Mount Royal, the Pandas faced Montreal in the opening game of the Canada West. They overcame the Carabins, and then did the same against Ottawa in the semi-finals. Though the team would eventually fall to UBC in the CIS title game, it’s pretty amazing that one week was the difference between playing Mount Royal for a CIS spot and then earning silver in that same competition.
Simply put, Bears and Pandas sports are among the best in Edmonton. Many of the players that don the green and gold go on to compete for their national teams, sometimes even in the Olympics. Whether you attend the games in person or keep track of the scores at the bears.ualberta.ca website, it’s important to know that these athletes compete for U of A pride, a respect for both the institution of higher education and city as a whole.
CC photograph courtesy of wburris on Flickr.