Photo by Valerie Wutti
Coming into a season filled with unknowns, the Ravens could count on the fact that they would be under the spotlight all season. Not only was the team the reigning back-to-back OUA champions, but they also were preparing to host the U Sports National Championships. They had a target on their back without even kicking a ball yet; there were no two ways about it. But great teams don’t worry about pressure or expectations, they just do their thing, and that was exactly what this Ravens team did from the first kick-off of the season to the last.
Carleton’s first game of the season was set up perfectly for them to get off to a good start. It was a Friday night match under the lights at Ravens Perch against Queen’s for their first match in over 675 days. The home fans were amazing, and the Ravens fed off their energy to take an early lead and never look back. The group then went to Kingston the following Sunday and staved off a late comeback from the Gaels to win 4-3 and start the season taking six points from a possible six.
Despite the uncertainty with COVID coming into a new season, the Ravens did not seem like they had missed a beat. Ravens coach Kwesi Loney noted that most of the team, being from Ottawa, helped the program get off to a smooth start this season, “We stayed in contact throughout the summer, we were allowed to train during the summer. And with most of our guys being from Ottawa, it allowed us to get sort of a headstart on the season.”
Following the two wins against Queens, the Ravens only got better. The team that finished with the most goals in all of OUA this season scored twenty times in their next three games, all blowout wins. Carleton was flying, and they were doing it with a combination of the old heads and new faces. Of course, mainstays like Gaby Bitar (Ottawa, Ont.), Dario Conte (Ottawa, Ont.) and Scott Mazzotta (Ottawa, Ont.) were scoring goals and picking up assists. But first-year players, Matteo De Brienne (Ottawa, Ont.), Luca Piccioli (Ottawa, Ont.) and Raphael Garcia (Ottawa, Ont.) were also crucial parts of an electric Ravens attack. The Ravens were sitting pretty with five wins and no points dropped, but adversity was coming, and the team was going to be tested.
After beating Ontario Tech 7-1 to pick up their fifth win of the year, the Ravens came home looking to continue their win streak against the same team they just defeated. But, they didn’t continue that win streak, and not only that, the highest-scoring team in OUA didn’t even manage a goal, drawing the match 0-0. It was not their best performance, but the Ravens had a chance to bounce back quickly in their biggest match of the season to date; a home game against the third-ranked York Lions. However, the team subsequently lost that match, their first loss of the year. It was a competitive 2-0 loss, but it was not what the team had come to expect of themselves. Carleton was brilliant in the next game against York, but still, the team only came away with a 1-1 draw. A point they only secured thanks to Matteo De Brienne’s mind-blowing goal that went viral almost everywhere.
It was clear the team was in a rut, but Coach Loney knew his team wouldn’t have any issues picking themselves up off the mat: “We had always said this wasn’t gonna be a normal season. In terms of when we were gonna start clicking it was gonna be much different than previous years. We have a lot of senior players, and a dip in form doesn’t really rattle them, so we just stuck to it, and we got back on track.” And get back on track, they did.
The Ravens finished the season winning both games against Trent, scoring twelve times and conceding zero goals. They made sure everyone knew that they were ready for the playoffs. Sure, it’s true that they already had a spot in Nationals due to being the host team, but the team wanted to show that they deserved to be there too. Carleton would enter playoffs as the fourth seed in Ontario, finishing with a record of 7-1-2.
The Ravens’ quarterfinal match was against McMaster, and it was a dominant performance. Three first-half goals from Raphael Garcia, Dario Conte and Scott Mazzotta allowed the team to cost to a comfortable 3-1 victory, setting up a semi-final matchup with the top-ranked Guelph side. The game was a tightly competitive match that genuinely came down to the last kick of the game, a penalty for Carleton with a chance to tie the game and send it to extra-time. Carleton missed, and that was it. Guelph was headed to the finals.
It may not have seemed like the ideal way to head into Nationals, but for Coach Loney, it was about watching his team get better every game: “I was really impressed with just how we grew throughout the season, it’s tough when you’re in a season, and you’re expected to win every game. It doesn’t happen like that. We had a really big roster and a lot of depth, and different players stepped up at different times, and that was a great team effort. The guys stuck to the process.”
Before Nationals began, two of Carleton’s fine rookies were recognized for their impressive seasons. Raphael Garcia earned U SPORTS First-Team All-Canadian honours, while Matteo de Brienne was named OUA East Rookie of the Year and was nominated for the U SPORTS Lou Bilek Award (Rookie of the Year). De Brienne finished the season with six goals in ten regular-season games and terrorized defences all year with his quickness and dribbling ability. At the same time, Garcia was a vital part of the Ravens’ strong backline, and his offensive capabilities added dynamism to the Ravens’ right flank.
When the time came for the Ravens to prove they belonged among the countries’ best at Nationals, they did it time and time again. The quarter-final match against UBC was a whirlwind of emotions for the partisan home crowd, with the Ravens falling behind early and then coming back in the second half to tie the game at twos. The game eventually went to a penalty shootout, and the nerves were palpable at the Ravens’ Perch, but thankfully, the Ravens prevailed.
Coach Loney admitted it was an unusual feeling being the home team but wanted his group to feed off their fans’ energy, “It was a different experience for us, it is different to just being in the tournament, you’re at home. The expectations are very high. We just had to focus on playing well on the day and use the energy from our fans as a positive, not a negative.”
Somehow, the games only got more dramatic from there. In the semi-finals against the top-ranked team in the nation, the Cape Breton Capers, it was the Ravens’ turn to blow a 2-0 lead. However, instead of getting down on themselves, Carleton bounced back. A late winner in extra time from captain Rickey Comba (Ottawa, ONT.) pushed the Ravens into the finals against Montreal and sent the Ravens Perch into a frenzy.
Despite an incredible performance in the finals from the Raven men, including a 122nd-minute equalizing goal to send the match to penalties, they had to settle for a silver medal. The resilience they showed all-tournament not only inspired the city of Ottawa to get behind them but also made their coach immensely proud:
“You can look at two ways, we put ourselves in holes, but we also dug ourselves out. We talk about preparing for the imperfect game and how to respond to that. With all the energy and emotion swirling around the matches, you’re gonna have mistakes, and our response to the mistakes was perfect. We were able to put ourselves in positions to win games, and that’s a great sign of a good team.”
The truly magical season did not end the way the team or the fans dreamt it would, but the Ravens had made an impact not only on the community but also on Canada’s soccer world. This is a program that has established itself as one of the best in the country, but Coach Loney is still not satisfied, “First of all, there’s still that hunger. We didn’t win Nationals. We haven’t achieved what we want to achieve yet. Are we close yes, but we aren’t there yet. There’s still a lot of work for us to do.”
There is still work to do, but that doesn’t mean what the Ravens did this year shouldn’t be celebrated. The last time the men’s soccer team made the National final was back in 2002, and this group gave Carleton a lot of memories they can be proud of. Silver isn’t Gold, but it represents something at the very least, and the team should be celebrated for what they accomplished this season.
Before next season, the Ravens will say goodbye to nine seniors, including some legends of the program; Ricky Comba, Gaby Bitar, Dario Conte, Scott Mazzotta, Mitch O’Brien (Chelsea, Que.), Emad Houache (Ottawa, Ont.), Jimi Aribido (Port Harcourt, Nigeria), Junior Asare (Ottawa, Ont.), and Jeremy Aweya (Kanata, Ont.). But thanks to their help, Coach Loney is confident the returning players can fill their big shoes:
“Our training sessions were extremely competitive this year—a lot of diversity in the talent we have. And our senior players did a great job of showing the younger players what it means and what it takes. Every session our younger players really stepped up and performed well. Now it’s a matter of bringing in recruits to help us fill the gaps, giving returning players bigger roles and that’s exciting.”
The Ravens will now look to defend their RSEQ title in the indoor season before beginning preparations for the 2022 outdoor season.