Campus Life

U of L plays host to Canada West Women's Rugby Championships

Coming off a dominant and undefeated Canada West regular season, the University of Alberta Pandas head into this weekend's Canada West Women's Rugby Championships as the top seed and the team to beat.

Joining the Pandas in Lethbridge are the University of Calgary Dinos, host University of Lethbridge Pronghorns and the UBC Thunderbirds.

The Pandas will play the Thunderbirds in Friday's first semifinal at 11 a.m. at the University of Lethbridge Community Sports Stadium, while the second semifinal will be a rematch of last year's thrilling semi in Edmonton, with the Dinos and Pronghorns squaring off at 1 p.m. The Dinos ended the Horns' six-year run as conference champions last year with a 33-32 victory.

Following their first conference championship in seven years, the Pandas were truly the class of the Canada West this season, racking up a 4-0 record and outscoring their opponents 192 to 20, or an average of 48-5 per game. The Pandas are also the top ranked team in the country and have claimed the CIS top ranking in the past three polls.

The bronze medalists at the 2012 CIS championship, this year's Pandas squad is perhaps the most veteran and experienced team in the country, with a roster that includes the majority of their players and starters from the 2012 season. On top of that, Chelsea Guthrie, a 2012 CIS All-Canadian and Canada West MVP, helped Canada to a third place finish at the 2013 Summer Universiade Games in Russia, a team that was coached by Alberta's head coach Matt Parrish, who won the Coach of the Year Award in Canada West last season as well.

Also back with the team this year are Amee Svatos (Back Row), Miranda Monty (Back Row), and Rebecca Fairbairn (Back 3), all of whom were all-stars last season, while Svatos, who is originally from Canby, Oregon, was the conference Rookie of the Year in 2012 after joining the Pandas from the Team USA U-20 squad and Oregon State University. Louis Chavarie (Lock) is also a key player for the Pandas. Third-year back-three player Alanna Fittes, however, has been the straw that stirs the drink for Alberta in 2013. The Rimbey, Alberta native led Canada West in points scored (63), tries (8) and converts (10), while she also scored a penalty goal.

The second seeded Dinos, building off their first appearance in the Canada West Championship game a year ago, finished second in the Canada West standings for the second year in a row, and for a program that is only in its fifth season in the conference, have made a quick ascension up the rugby ranks.

The Dinos, ranked in the CIS Top Ten all season, opened the campaign with a tough loss to the Pandas but then swept their trip through BC, soundly beating both the Victoria Vikes and UBC Thunderbirds. In a preview of this Friday's second semifinal, the Dinos concluded their conference schedule hosting the U of L Pronghorns in early October with the game ending in a 26-26 draw.

For the Horns, while it is always a benefit to play on your home field, the 2013 season has been a roller coaster ride. After opening the season with a disappointing loss to the Victoria Vikes, the six-time Canada West Champions finished with a 1-2-1 record. The 'Horns rebounded from that season opening loss to beat the T-Birds, but after their draw with the Dinos, the 'Horns were beaten handily by the Pandas.

From the start of the season it has been a challenging year for interim head coach JJ Ondrus with captain Jillian Ankutowicz and Canada U-20 member Sarah Gordon missing the entire season due to injury. The club's depth was further tested with other key injuries during the regular season.

Offensively, the 'Horns relied on a balanced attack with eight players scoring at least one try. Senior Kim Leavitt (Back Row) led the way in tries (4), while fourth-year Tiffany Wideen (Centre) took over the kicking duties this season and hit six converts.

The fourth seeded UBC Thunderbirds went into the final weekend of the regular season needing to win and win big to qualify for the conference championships. Under the leadership of first year head coach Maria Gallo, the Thunderbirds had lost their first three games of the season but with their impressive 63-17 win over the Victoria Vikes, the T-Birds punched their ticket to Lethbridge.