Griffins suffer 5-1 loss to defending national champion Golden Bears

MacEwan's Christian Hernandez looks for space in the attacking third of the field against Alberta's Cameron Sjerve on Saturday (Chris Piggott photo).
MacEwan's Christian Hernandez looks for space in the attacking third of the field against Alberta's Cameron Sjerve on Saturday (Chris Piggott photo).

Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Falling behind early and unable to keep pace with the defending national champions throughout the match, the MacEwan Griffins suffered a 5-1 defeat at the hands of cross-town rival Alberta on Saturday.    

Third-year striker Nikko Cuglietta was unstoppable in recording two goals and four points to pace the Golden Bears, while rookie Easton Ongaro also scored twice as Alberta improves to a Canada West-leading 8-1-2 record.

"Of course, Nikko's coming back from knee surgery last year and he's really coming into good form at the right time of the year," said Alberta head coach Len Vickery. "I believe that was the first time we've started him. We've used him in other games and he's beginning to find the net, which is his game."

After MacEwan opened the game at Clareview field with a couple of early corners, Alberta took over. The Golden Bears scored on their first real chance of the contest in the ninth minute when Cuglietta potted a rebound after Ajeej Sarkaria's initial shot was stopped.

Just four minutes later, it was suddenly 2-0 for Alberta when MacEwan's defence got crossed up off a corner kick and in the ensuing scramble, Ongaro found the twine inside the left post.

It simply wasn't the start MacEwan head coach Adam Loga was looking for.

"U of A's a great program," he said. "They're the national champions, they're No. 1 in the nation. When you give them two in the first 20 they're going to be a tough team to come back against."

MacEwan was unable to mount much forward pressure as Alberta hemmed them in their own end for much of the opening half. Sarkaria hit the crossbar in the 22nd minute off a free kick from 30 yards and then nearly scored in the 25th on a long ball that was headed out of danger by MacEwan's Bennett Foster.

But the pressure would just be too much for the Griffins. In the 27th minute, Ongaro scored his second of the game, taking a Cuglietta pass into the box, splitting the defence and chipping it past MacEwan goalkeeper Dory Elliott.

"Easton is one of our rookies," said Vickery. "He shows he knows his way to goal, as well. It was good to get them both starting (along with Cuglietta) in the same game in their own neck of the woods."

MacEwan nearly got on the board in the 29th minute after Christian Hernandez side-stepped a defender and labelled one for the top corner, but Alberta keeper Connor James made a lightning-quick leap to get a hand on the ball.

At the half, a rally from 3-0 down unlikely, Loga told his troops to try to gain some momentum for Sunday's rematch (2:15 p.m., Foote Field).

"We're back at it tomorrow, so it was what can we do to create momentum and try our best to win the second half to bring us into tomorrow."

On the scoreboard, the Griffins weren't able to win the second half, but they had more possession and scored, too. Right before the final whistle, in extra time, Bennett Foster headed home a Josh Samuel corner kick to wreck James' shutout bid.

"Goals are tough to come by for anyone and any team, so it was great to get one," said Loga.

Alberta also had tallies in the 46th minute when Cuglietta slipped a defender on the right side and slotted it in the far corner, and in the 57th when halftime sub Luke Snihurowych bombed one past Elliott from 35 yards out.

Vickery's strategy when Alberta got a big lead was to go deep into his bench.

"You get the rest of the guys in," he explained. "We used 17 players. We've got to get other players ready to perform in the coming games, particularly as we start to hone in on a possible playoff game."

Alberta outshot MacEwan 27-7 in the game (11-3 in shots on goal). With the loss, the Griffins drop to 2-8-1 and face a serious uphill battle to catch a playoff spot. But it's definitely a game the young squad can learn from for the future.

"They're a great team and a great program," reiterated Loga. "They've got many third and fourth-year guys. We're hoping our freshmen that have come in this year and our freshmen to come will be at that standard in a couple seasons. A lot of them are men and we've got 17 and 18 year olds.

"That being said, no matter what the age or birth year, we've got to come out and compete and control what we can control," he added. "The work rate wasn't there. We came out a bit sloppy and spotted them two."