Oshawa, Ont. – There aren’t many better ways to kick off a new season than with two perennial powers bringing their upper echelon talents head-to-head on the pitch. And when it comes to the OUA East Division, both the Ottawa Gee-Gees and Ontario Tech Ridgebacks are chock-full of such skill, making their debut fixture in 2019 – this week’s OUA Marquee Matchup – a key early-season clash en route to achieving their lofty expectations this season.
While the Ridgebacks have found plenty of success over the last several seasons, it is the visiting Gee-Gees who are coming in as reigning champions, both at the provincial and national levels. Their 14-1-1 season in 2018 put them squarely in the spotlight as one of the country’s elite, and after taking down their conference competition a year ago, they successfully turned their attention to the rest of the country on the way to their first U SPORTS title since 1996 (second overall).
Now in the opening chapter of their title defence, the team will face a familiar foe, and one that they have combined with to secure the past five division titles (Ottawa – 3; Ontario Tech – 2). The Ridgebacks, like most other teams a year ago, were unable to score a victory against the Gee-Gees in 2018, falling in both of their most recent matchups, but are looking to get off on the right foot this year in what they hope is a bounce back campaign after a 7-5-4 record a season ago.
Once again, a key piece to the Ridgebacks puzzle will be Taijah Henderson (Ajax, Ont.). The fifth-year striker is coming off a four-goal campaign, to go along with a pair of assists, and will once again be a focal point in the potent Ontario Tech attack. A running mate of the three-time OUA all-star and 2017 All-Canadian will be Alyssa Nikkel (Toronto, Ont.). The fourth-year standout is coming off a role with the red and white at the 2019 FISU Games and will once again be looked to as someone to control the pace and direction of the match from the middle of the pitch.
Matching up with the Ridgeback attack will be a team well-versed in offensive prowess. Ottawa led the league with 41 goals for a year ago, and at the forefront was an 18-point campaign for Emma Lefebvre (Kingston, Ont.). Over the past two seasons, the striker has emerged as an elite offensive threat in the OUA, tying atop the conference in points last season, and is looking for even more after earning second-team OUA all-star honours and a U SPORTS National Championship Tournament all-star nod in 2018.
Another veteran returnee will be aiming for another starring season for the defending champs, as Katherine Bearne (Halifax, NS) – a standout on the field and in the classroom – will be among the all-but four key members of the 2018 back for an attempted repeat. The fifth-year midfielder is hoping to close out her career on a high note and, regardless, will do so as one of the most decorated players in the OUA. Bearne’s impressive résumé includes all-star nods at the provincial and national level, and like her midfield counterpart on Saturday, a spot on the FISU Summer Universiade squad in this past summer.
While Bearne and teammate Thea Nour (Ottawa, Ont.) suited up alongside Nikkel and played under the tutelage of Ontario Tech coach Peyvand Mossavat in Italy a couple months ago, there will be a more competitive flavour to this next encounter when they get back to donning their school colours in this tantalizing opening day tandem.
Despite being a year removed from their recent top-tier campaigns, the Ridgebacks will certainly be looking to turn the tides in their favour once again in 2019, and to do so, they’ll need to start by closing the gap in their head-to-head record against Ottawa on Saturday. The visitors have a 6-2-1 edge all-time against the Oshawa squad, but a championship pedigree across the board suggests that every game is a coin toss until the final whistle sounds, especially with a clean slate and endless possibilities to work with this season.
To see if the Gee-Gees can start their title defence in the win column or if Ontario Tech launches their quest back to the top in fine form, fans can flock to Vaso’s Field in Oshawa on Saturday, August 31 at 12:00pm to catch this week’s OUA Marquee Matchup unfold live.