Rugby rules fall varsity sports scene

Nixon squads both deliver championship seasons, while four other teams reach OUA or CIS podiums

1. Men’s rugby

It was painfully close, but men’s rugby edged out their female counterparts as our pick for Queen’s team of the fall.

2012 was a coronation year for a Gaels program on the brink, and 2013 was even better. Queen’s ripped the OUA to shreds, capping off an undefeated season with an emphatic 40-10 win over the Western Mustangs in the league title game.

The squad won all nine of their matches by at least 18 points, surrendering five points or less in six of those.

In the absence of a CIS men’s rugby championship, it would be pretty much impossible for the Gaels to top this season’s performance. That’s a commendable feat, rather than something to be overlooked.

Superstar fly half Liam Underwood missed all but one game, but a glut of veterans and newcomers were terrific in relief.

Fifth-year back Brendan McGovern finished second in OUA scoring, while rookies Kainoa Lloyd and Matt Mullins combined for 13 total tries. A league-high six Gaels cracked the OUA All-Star roster.

After an eight-year title drought, the Gaels have clinched three of the last five league championships under bench boss Peter Huigenbos, dating back to 2009. They’re the prohibitive favourite for varsity team of the year.

Nick Faris

2. Women’s rugby

While they might not have captured top spot in our rankings, there’s no doubt women’s rugby had their best season ever.

After falling just four points shy against Guelph in last year’s title game, the Gaels embarked on an undefeated OUA campaign. They beat the Gryphons 19-15 in the final, avenging last year’s loss and capturing their first provincial crown.

The win snapped Guelph’s 54-game winning streak and five-year reign atop the OUA standings.

For an encore performance, the Gaels snagged the program’s first-ever CIS medal, defeating the McGill Martlets 32-24 in the bronze medal match at nationals.

The Gaels dominated the OUA Russell Division during the regular season, winning three games by 30 or more points, and scoring at least six tries in all five games.

2013 was Lauren McEwen’s breakout year, as the third-year back finished second in the OUA with 54 points. The All-Canadian followed up her regular season success with 41 points in three playoff games, the best in the league.

Joining McEwen on the All-Canadian squad was fourth-year forward Claragh Pegg, while Devon Stride, Loren Baldwin and Karley Heyman made the OUA All-Star team.

With a strong contingent of players returning in 2014, Queen’s has a shot to be the new OUA dynasty.

Sean Sutherland

3. Football

In a year when only Western was better, Queen’s second-place OUA finish is nothing to scoff at.

The Gaels’ 51-22 Yates Cup loss in London was an unfortunate end to an otherwise promising year, which saw Queen’s advance to their first OUA title game since 2009.

Conceding 101 points in two games against Western was a veritable deathblow, but it’s understandable in retrospect. The Mustangs romped through the OUA and led the country in scoring by 104 points.

Queen’s, meanwhile, entrenched themselves as worthy runners-up.

Fourth-year quarterback Billy McPhee had his most efficient season to date, while running backs Ryan Granberg, Jesse Andrews and Daniel Heslop emerged as the league’s most dangerous rushing trifecta.

Third-year defensive back Yann Dika-Balotoken tied for the CIS lead in interceptions, while he and six defensive teammates earned OUA All-Star nods.

After barely beating the lackluster Laurier Golden Hawks on Queen’s first Homecoming weekend, the Gaels got their season in gear. They pumped the Waterloo Warriors 78-21 and beat the Guelph Gryphons in consecutive games to progress to Yates.

Exorcising the sting of two brutal losses to Guelph in 2012 was a giant success on its own. Outlasting Western will be the next frontier to cross.

Nick Faris

4. Rowing

Podium finishes kept Queen’s near the top of the provincial and national rowing standings this season.

The program’s generally strong women’s team won an overall silver medal at the OUA championships in St. Catharines, then finished third at nationals in Montreal the following week.

The men’s side claimed OUA bronze for the third straight year and placed fifth at nationals.

Third-year Matt Christie had his team’s best individual result, winning OUA gold in the lightweight men’s single and taking home league Oarsman of the Year honours.

The Gaels’ women’s heavyweight eight crew won their second straight Ontario title, then pulled off an improbable comeback at nationals to snag individual silver.

Second-year Larkin Davenport-Huyer also won solo silver in Montreal, placing second in the women’s heavyweight single race.

A year after being named OUA Women’s Coach of the Year, Queen’s Zola Mehlomakulu won the same prize at the national level this season.

Nick Faris

5. Cross-country

Individual success outweighed team performances for the Gaels in 2013.

The pair of Julie-Anne Staehli and Victoria Coates dominated women’s cross-country this year. They revived a Queen’s team that finished 11th in the CIS last year, en route to a bronze medal at nationals.

On a solo level, Staehli snagged the CIS gold medal, while Coates brought home the OUA title. The duo finished on the podium in every race they ran this season.

While the team succeeded at nationals, they couldn’t capitalize at the OUAs, finishing off the podium despite two individual medals.

The men’s side matched the women’s effort at the provincial level, though they depended more on depth to succeed, with Jeff Archer being the only top-10 runner at the event.

At the CIS championships, the men ended up in fifth for the second straight year, with Archer, David Cashin and Tyson Loney all ranking in the top 25.

Sean Sutherland

6. Women’s soccer

After three consecutive appearances in the CIS title game, a surprise OUA bronze medal feels like a letdown.

After a disappointing regular season, women’s soccer pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year. They shocked the OUA East champion Ottawa Gee-Gees 1-0 in penalties to win their quarterfinal matchup and advance to the OUA Final Four.

After a 1-0 loss to the Western Mustangs, Queen’s defeated the Carleton Ravens 1-0 to capture bronze.

The playoff run came off the heels of a 7-2-7 season in which the Gaels were beset by injuries and an inability to close out games.

The team conceded a second-half equalizer three times during the year, costing them valuable points in the standings each time.

The Gaels also felt the loss of graduated striker Jackie Tessier, scoring just 34 goals — 21 less than last season.

Instead, the offence relied on fifth-year midfielder Riley Filion, who tied rookie Rachel Radu for the team lead with six goals.

Two other rookies will play a major role after the graduations of mainstays Filion and Alexis McKinty. Striker Tara Bartram finished third on the team with five goals, while defender Micah Vermeer was named a second-team All-Star.

Sean Sutherland

7. Men’s soccer

For a team seemingly on the rise, a quarterfinal exit was hardly the Gaels’ desired finish.

Queen’s dropped a pair of thumping defeats to the Carleton Ravens in the regular season, then lost 2-1 in an agonizing playoff rematch in Ottawa.

Second-year midfielder Andrew Martin scored in the 89th minute of that game to force overtime, but Carleton soon pulled ahead for good.

After winning their division and advancing to the OUA Final Four in 2012, a berth to nationals seemed to be reachable for this year’s Gaels.

The Ravens and Ryerson Rams proved superior, though, beating Queen’s a combined five times.

Injuries to key players at various times undoubtedly hindered Queen’s offensive cohesion. They mustered just one goal in a series of frustrating ties with the Laurentian Voyageurs and RMC Paladins, finishing seventh in overall OUA scoring.

The Gaels’ previously stellar defence fell off a bit, conceding more than twice the amount of goals they did last season.

Fourth-year captain Joe Zupo was Queen’s lone First-Team OUA All-Star, marking the third straight season he’s cracked the top squad.

Nick Faris

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