By Thomas Becker
They may be underdogs, but that hasn't stopped the UPEI Panthers from facing a challenge head-on.
Their latest test comes on Oct. 19 when they visit the Acadia Axewomen in the AUS women's rugby semifinals.
Head coach John LaBoyne has seen this story play out in a loss in the past two seasons, but this time he's hoping his team can flip the script.
"They've had some big scores against us, but each time we've played them we've gotten better," he said.
The Panthers had their hands full with Acadia this season. In their first matchup, LaBoyne admitted his team wasn't prepared to take on an Axewomen squad that had already played seven games before facing their AUS foe, as they took care of business 116-12.
In their second match, the Panthers shaved off more than half the points in a 57-12 loss and LaBoyne said the game could've been closer if not for some "fixable" mistakes.
"We made some tactical calls that weren't advantageous for us and they got points they probably shouldn't have."
Despite the crooked results, the Panthers realize they can't stray far from who they are – a physical and relentless team that excels in rucks and scrums. In recent weeks, LaBoyne said he's encouraged by the improvements his team has made in areas they've struggled in, including tackle counts and pass percentage.
"We're going to play our game. We're going to stick to our patterns and our system," he said. "We're not doing anything special for them. As soon as you start specializing, you're losing your own identity, so we're just going to do us."
The youth movement was a major storyline that followed UPEI throughout the season and injuries to key veterans Niki Triantafillou and Brodie Cassata only pushed the timeline forward. In total, 11 of their 15 starters are in their third year or less. And next year they'll be even younger.
Rookie Brinten Comeau and sophomore Sophie Carragher led UPEI in scoring with 30 and 20 points, respectively, and continue to be pivotal pieces for the future. While Frances MacWilliam, Tara Campbell and rookie Tessa Hood are all becoming stronger players and forming the nucleus of a team on a the rise.
It's a promising core to be excited about, but it's veterans like Lauren Sheidow, Stephanie Richardson and Anneke Dykerman (who's having her best year yet in the green and white), who have paved the way for their young teammates to succeed.
"Their attitude has been amazing. These girls are so resilient and so understanding that every time we step on the field we get better."
That resilient nature LaBoyne is talking about are what upsets are made of and the Panthers are hoping to become the latest team to do the unthinkable.
In order to take down Acadia, they'll need t retain the ball as often as possible, which means scoring first. UPEI intends on working the angles in their attacking patterns to find open lanes to burst through. By doing so, it'll also keep Acadia's one-two punch in Islanders Tori Hogan and Alysha Corrigan – who finished first and second in scoring – at bay.
"They're very strong on defence so we have to be careful with how we approach contact," LaBoyne said. "Whatever they're giving us, we have to go someplace else."
Regardless of what happens in the semifinals, LaBoyne is eager to see what's next for this up-and-coming team, as those championship aspirations are alive and well.
"I believe we're almost there."