–By Charlie Pinkerton
For the most valuable player of the U Sports women’s soccer championship, the game and the memories formed from it wasn’t only “perfect”, but also signify the end of a full-circle redemption.
In the 64th minute of the championship hosted by the University of Ottawa, a split-second play by Gee-Gees midfielder Miranda Smith decided the game. She intercepted a pass from a Trinity Western University Spartan and immediately launch it on net from 29 yards out. The ball sailed past the outstretched arm of the Trinity Western keeper, clanking off the bottom of the crossbar and into the back of the net. Smith was rushed by her teammates to celebrate the goal that made it 2-1, which would hold as the championship’s final score.
Five years earlier, Miranda Smith was a part of a team that walked off of the same field as champions (at that time of the Ontario Youth Soccer League east division). That year, Smith and her FC Capital United Under-17 teammates made history by going undefeated during their regular season and becoming the first team to win their OYSL division and play in the league’s championship final. Yet after that season, it was unlikely Smith would ever again play at the university – let alone represent the Gee-Gees.
A top recruit out of high school, Smith committed to join the NCAA’s University of Memphis Tigers.
Over three years at Memphis, Smith gradually became more involved in the rotation and would eventually start nine of the 19 games she played in her junior year, which would be her last. While she had gained status on the team in the form of playing time, she grew tired of the disciplinary atmosphere and what she felt was a lack of trust from her Tigers coaches.
She said her confidence had plummeted to the point where she questioned her love for soccer.
Her solution was to return home.
When choosing to move back to Ottawa to finish her university career playing for the Gee-Gees, Smith said she barely had any idea how the U Sports’ league worked. Forget about her even thinking about winning a national championship.
“I guess my first thought was more about just trying to be happy with the sport again,” Smith said.
That came to her through a trusting coach, Gee-Gees’ Steve Johnson, who she described as feeling empowered by. After a year of allowing her to feel out the program, Johnson named Smith the team’s captain for her final season.
As the leader of a team that she described as “always so dedicated and always there for each other,” her confidence came flooding back.
The meaningfulness of her journey was cemented by being able to win a national championship in front of a hometown crowd.
“That was probably the best moment in soccer that I’ve had in my life I think,” Smith said not of her game-winning goal, but of the celebration at the buzzer of the Nov. 11 championship. She remembers tears swelling in her eyes and being overwhelmed by emotion when she heard the final whistle.
“Seeing the excitement of everyone around me once that whistle blew, I don’t think anything compares to that moment,” Smith said.
“I’m so happy for her,” Johnson said in a broadcasted interview immediately after the championship. “In my opinion she’s been our best player all year – that’s my captain. I’m so happy she had this tournament at this time, in front of her family and friends.”
Days after the championship, she recalled it being a “blur” and that she “(couldn’t) believe it actually happened,” but that she doesn’t think she could have written a better ending for her and the team that helped her rediscover her love for the game of soccer.
“It’s been a great experience and words don’t really do it justice,” Smith added. She said the Gee-Gees experience in its entirety “more than surpassed” what she could have wished for.
Days after the national championship, the Sportspage exchanged emails with Gee-Gees assistant coach Stuart Barbour.
“My friend’s nine-year-old daughter was at the game and sent a program to me through her dad with a list of autographs she wants me to get for her,” Barbour said.
Surely at the top of that list was Smith, who coincidentally might have even inspired a future Gee-Gee.
“It is so neat to see the impact a great group of players (and) people can have on others,” Barbour said.
Close for Carleton
The Carleton Ravens men’s soccer team came ever so close to a national championship of their own and eventually won the U Sports bronze medal in a victory against Trinity Western. It’s the first time the Ravens won a national medal since taking 2nd place in 2002.
—with files from Dan Plouffe