Top-heavy OUA gives Hawks a challenge

(Photo by Kate Turner)

Last year, the Wilfrid Laurier women’s hockey team rolled over the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) league, barely breaking a sweat.

Going 25-0-1, the Hawks nestled themselves into first place well before the Christmas break and coasted through the rest of the season as the team to beat.

This year, very little has changed in regards to the calibre that Laurier plays at. The team is still competing at a high level and is still found around the top of the OUA standings.

But this time, they’re not alone.

“For about the last eight years, we have been at least six points up in the loss column by Christmas,” said head coach Rick Osborne. “This year, there’s four or five teams that still have a chance to be up there.”

Currently, Laurier sits one point behind the Queen’s Gaels for first place in the OUA with a 12-1-2 record, good enough for No. 6 in the country.

After splitting their weekend with a 3-2 shootout win over the Windsor Lancers and a 2-1 overtime loss to the Western Mustangs, there is little question that the league has developed a larger competitive field.

“I think this year the OUA is so strong that the games are more difficult for us,” said first-year goaltender Kayla Brown, who recorded the win in the nine-round shootout Saturday night. “But I think, if anything, it definitely makes us work harder, we can’t sit back and assume we’re going to win.”

Osborne compared Saturday’s game against Windsor to the team’s first exhibition game against the defending national champion, the Calgary Dinos.

He said the pace was fast and was a quicker tempo than Laurier is used to in the OUA.

In turn, Windsor had the lead on two different occasions Saturday, which included a goal less than three minutes into the first period. Not until late in the second period did Laurier veteran Brittany Crago tie it up.

Crago would also score the game-winner in the ninth round of the shootout.

Brown faced 32 shots while her counterpart Karlyle Robinson faced 29.

“I thought we played pretty good in the third period and towards the end of the first, but definitely the second period, when we got into penalty trouble, we started to fall apart,” said Brown, who played in her first OUA shootout. “But Windsor came out and they played really strong and they got a lot of opportunities around the net.”

Despite Laurier losing to Western Sunday— their second loss to the Mustangs this season—, Osborne said the team had one of their better performances.

“Actually, I thought the team played pretty well. It is late November, but from a process perspective, I was pretty happy,” he said.

Laurier held a 1-0 lead for the majority of the game, but couldn’t put it away before Western scored with less than four minutes left in the third period.

Osborne attributed the loss to fatigue, saying the Hawks “hit a wall” from the extensive amount of playing in 24 hours.

“I just didn’t [expect] us all of a sudden hitting a wall in the third period,” he said. “I thought we were going to hang on for a 1-0 win, I really did.”

With two games left before the Christmas break, the standings reflect a close fight for top spot in the OUA.

Currently, Queen’s holds a one-point lead on Laurier, while the Mustangs and the Guelph Gryphons trail the first-place spot by only three and four points respectively.

Although the competition creates a challenge for Laurier, Osborne said this is good for not only the team, but also the league.

“From my perspective, [it’s] wonderful to have four or five teams that think they can beat you, are good enough to play with you,” he said. “I believe Laurier set the bar for the last ten years and now, it’s brought the calibre of the whole league up.

“We have to feel good about that and we have to work really hard to find a way to get the job done.”

Crago, who has played at Laurier for the past four years, also said that the competition she’s faced this year has been greater than ever before.

“Since my first year, the skill-level [in the OUA] has grown tremendously,” she said. “I think you can tell by the way we’re not exactly blowing teams away like we used to. It’s a reflection on the league and how it’s improving and I think it’s good. I think it’s a good thing for Canadian hockey.”

Laurier will finish the first half of their season this weekend with two games against the Waterloo Warriors Thursday at home and the York Lions Saturday in Toronto.

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