Toronto, Ont. (via David DiCenzo) – They will be the most nerve-wracking 90 minutes (or more) of the season but a victory at this time of year will secure the opportunity to play for the coveted Blackwood Cup. The Guelph Gryphons and Carleton Ravens will meet in the opening OUA Final Four match, while a local rivalry is renewed in the second contest as the Toronto Varsity Blues take on defending champion York on the host Lions’ Alumni Field pitch.
No. 8 Guelph makes a triumphant return to the OUA semifinals after a season filled with adversity. The 2016 champions saw their program’s all-time leading scorer Jace Kotsopoulos (Burlington, Ont.) go down with an injury that limited the reigning U SPORTS Player of the Year to just two games this campaign. But the depth on head coach Keith Mason’s side played a crucial role in its success (8-2-4) with six different players scoring at least four goals.
A familiar face also proved to be a difference-maker. Midfielder Alex Zis was a rookie when Guelph raised the OUA banner in 2016 and after two years of NCAA soccer with the South Florida Bulls, he returned to Canada, and proceeded to tear up the league. Zis led all midfielders with eight goals but he was at his best when providing, racking up 16 assists (nine more than any other OUA player) in what was ultimately an MVP-calibre season. With a calm and cool demeanor, the Oakville, Ont. native has rescued points with some late penalty-kick heroics, while offering Mason’s roster leadership both on and off the pitch. Kotsopoulos returned in style with a first-half brace in the Gryphons’ decisive 3-0 win over Brock in the West quarterfinal (both assisted by Zis). The two make for an imposing duo and each will be eager to add another championship for the proud program, particularly the fifth-year Kotsopoulos, who is competing in his last Final Four.
Guelph faces a big obstacle to get there, however. The No. 3-ranked Ravens were a force in the East this season, registering a 13-1-0 record thanks in part to leading the East in goals scored and fewest conceded. Carleton’s lone setback came in a 3-1 road loss to Ryerson back on October 12, but the 2018 OUA silver-medalist rebounded by outscoring opponents 10-1 in the last three matches of the season before routing Ontario Tech 5-2 in the quarterfinal round.
Third-year striker Stefan Karajovanovic was the inspiration in that decisive playoff win last week with a first-half hat-trick that ensured the Ravens would advance. The Gatineau, Que. native paced all Ravens with eight goals this season. Karajovanovic and 2018 OUA East MVP Dario Conte, a third-year midfielder from Ottawa, Ont., should be a handful for a reshaped Guelph defence that has lost several veterans to graduation.
Friday’s second match promises to provide plenty of emotion as nearby rivals Toronto and York battle for a berth in the OUA final. The No. 7 Varsity Blues are in search of a second consecutive upset in a local, hostile environment as they made the Final Four by bouncing the then fifth-ranked Ryerson 3-1 in the East quarterfinal. Toronto has earned six medals since 2008 and last won a provincial banner in 2010 when they dramatically defeated the Lions in kicks. To repeat that feat, the team will need to be at its best with captain Nikola Stakic (Scarborough, Ont.) leading the way.
The veteran has patrolled the midfield all season, scoring five goals, including the eventual match-winner over the Rams last week. Stakic and his teammates received a welcome boost this year with the addition of Guelph transfer Atchu Sivananthan (Brampton, Ont.). The fifth-year midfielder chipped in five goals on the season and gave the Varsity Blues all the offence they would need when he buried a fourth-minute strike in the side’s 6-0 drubbing of Nipissing in the opening round, one of two for Sivananthan in the match. Rookie Jacob Doroszkiewicz (Toronto, Ont.) offers critical support in the midfield and actually led Toronto in scoring with six goals; three of them coming in a 3-1 win at Trent on September 29.
“We are facing one of the top teams in the country at their home field,” said Varsity Blues head coach Ilya Orlov. “We are focusing on ourselves and what we need to do to come out with a win. We are now a confident group that is peaking at the right time of the season and look to continue the momentum. We will need to stay organized in our shape with and without the ball and finish off our chances when they come our way.”
Discipline and patience will be important for Toronto to complete another upset over its powerful rival. Top-ranked York is simply loaded and enters its 10th consecutive OUA Final Four with the focus squarely on repeating as champions, which would represent the eighth banner in program history after a run of five titles in the last six years.
The hosts cruised through the regular season, going 11-0-3 with OUA-bests in both goals for and against. And those five goals against came in back-to-back September matches in which York beat Laurier 9-3 and drew Guelph 2-2, meaning opponents were held off the scoresheet in the remaining 12 matches. This season marked the 13th straight first-place finish for the Lions in the West. Fifth-year forward Christopher Jacovou (Richmond Hill, Ont.) and third-year front man Merci Yuma (Toronto, Ont.) combined to lead the powerful attack with eight goals each. The duo took centre stage in York’s 4-1 demolition of McMaster in the West quarter-final, with Jacovou netting a first-half hat-trick and Yuma, a professional player in Europe last season, accounting for the side’s fourth of the day.
The winners from each semifinal will face off to compete for the Blackwood Cup on Saturday. Match time is set for 5:00 pm. The two OUA semifinals on Friday, as well as the gold and bronze-medal matches the following day, can be seen live on oua.tv.