Griffins women’s soccer program enjoying meteoric rise to become 1 of Canada’s best

When Grace Mwasalla arrived as a young first-year with the MacEwan University Griffins, she didn’t shy away from the opportunity. 

In her debut match on Sept. 4, 2021, the rookie forward swung her right foot at the ball from the edge of the penalty area, unleashing a curling strike into the top corner of the University of Alberta Panda’s net. 

Now a third-year, Mwasalla has become one of the most prominent scoring threats in U Sports soccer, and her debut showcased her potential at the Canadian university level. That debut goal proved to be the first of a career that already has the Calgary native atop her program’s scoring records. 

“We knew from day one when we saw her play that this was a kid you needed to believe in and show confidence in,” MacEwan head coach Dean Cordeiro told CBC Sports. “When the ball is at her feet, she just creates. She can score in all different facets on the dribble, shots from distance, in the air. She’s so deceptive and has an ability to create for others as well.”

Since joining U Sports in 2014, the Griffins women’s soccer program has enjoyed a meteoric rise, pushing historically strong opponents in the Canada West conference before culminating in a U Sports championship in 2021, with Mwasalla playing a pivotal role as a first-year.

“I’m normally a really shy person at first, but I just felt comfortable from day one,” Mwasalla told CBC Sports. “With the [2021] seniors and the rest of the girls, it was a great environment to be a part of, and when you’re put in a place where you can thrive, I think it just brings out the best in you, and that’s what helped me then and still helps me now.”

Now, Mwasalla has 27 Canada West goals in 32 appearances and recently broke the program record for most game-winning goals in a single season, with five in their first six games. At the same time, she could break the conference’s single-season scoring record of 18 goals, set by former University of Calgary forward Montana Leonard in 2021. 

However, she wasn’t a heavily recruited player from a high school. Playing with a team of 2001-born athletes as a 2002-born player, many coaches who took in her youth matches overlooked the talismanic forward, but not Cordeiro, who believed in the now prolific attacker.

“I kind of slipped through the cracks on my way up until I met with Dean, and he kind of showed me that belief and spoke highly of me,” Mwasalla said. “That made my decision [to join MacEwan] pretty easy.”

In the first few games of the 2023 season, she has shown up in the big moments, scoring two of her six game-winning goals in the final five minutes of matches. While she may not be among the seniors within the group, with two years of eligibility remaining, she has commanded attention since she was a rookie. 

“I love her. She’s such a team player; she makes those around her look good. She makes cheeky passes, cheeky plays for assists, and she works so hard,” team captain Hannah Supina told CBC Sports. “She has confidence and expects so much from herself; she leads by example, and when she does use her voice to lead, it’s just so easy to follow her.”

MacEwan’s title rise, bounce back from heartbreak

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Griffins had an added emphasis on putting the rest of the country on notice. The group had put together consistent performances, and for many of the seniors, including then-team captain Samantha Gouveia, there was extraordinary confidence in the MacEwan environment. 

In Canada West, the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds had been the banner program for decades, winning 16 conference titles and seven U Sports championships in their time. However, the conference became more competitive with the rise of the Trinity Western University Spartans, who joined in 2001.

Yet before MacEwan paraded around Ness Timmons Field in Cape Breton with the U Sports banner in 2021, the last school out of Canada West to win nationals, other than UBC and TWU were the University of Victoria Vikes in 2005. 

“We really did mirror a lot of what TWU did and built, making that move from a college program to U Sports,” Cordeiro said. “I think kids growing up in BC, UBC and Victoria, were probably everybody’s first two choices, and we’re in Edmonton with a big school across the river, and that’s how we viewed it, wanting to close that gap [with Alberta].”

When they joined the top level of Canadian university soccer, the Griffins adjusted quickly, making the Canada West playoffs in their first season, a mark they have only missed once, in heartbreaking fashion in 2022. 

Defending their U Sports title, the Griffins completed a stellar campaign, winning 12 games, led by Mwasalla’s 14 goals, only to be hit with heartbreaking news after the regular season concluded that they would not advance to the playoffs due to fielding an ineligible player in 11 games, which were then defaulted. 

In 2023, though, the Griffins are off to a 6-0-0 perfect start; and have their sights set on a second national championship in three seasons while Mwasalla chases down the all-time single-season scoring record.

“It was devastating, and we were utterly heartbroken, but I can honestly say now that I am thankful that we went through it just because it has given us even more grit than we’ve had before,” Supina said. 

“We’re motivated and have a fire in our bones from that whole situation, and we’re prepared for the lows and the highs because we know we can get through anything together.”

Around the U Sports world:

  • UBC Thunderbirds women’s soccer defender Sophia Ferreira has been called up to Portugal’s U23 women’s national team, while Concordia University goalkeeper Tony Awad represents the Jordanian U23 team. 

  • According to a TSN report, the University of Western Ontario is investigating the school’s women’s hockey program after players alleged misconduct by head coach Candice Moxley and strength and conditioning coach Jeff Watson.

  • The U Sports field hockey season began this past weekend in Canada West, with UBC defeating Calgary 1-0, while they played to a 0-0 tie in their other matchup. The OUA season begins on Sept. 16. 

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