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Penalty heroics secure host TRU WolfPack's first U Sports title

What happened on Sunday is beyond storybook, an unforgettable chapter of Kamloops sports history

Domenico Comita broke down crying and doubled over, consumed with emotion after his TRU WolfPack dispatched the UBC Thunderbirds of Vancouver 2-1 in a penalty shootout to win the U Sports Men’s Soccer Championship on Sunday at Hillside Stadium.

“I just can’t believe it, man,” said Domenico, whose WolfPack are the first team in TRU history to win a U Sports title. “Last year, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to play soccer again. I just battled to get back into the team and I kept telling myself, ‘I’m going to score when it counts.’” 

The midfielder from Kamloops — who missed the 2021 season due to a concussion — was in the crowd leading chants on a megaphone on Friday (Nov. 11), a healthy scratch doing his part to push the No. 5-ranked Pack to a 3-2 penalty shootout win over the No. 1 Cape Breton Capers.

Comita was activated for the championship showdown on Sunday when TRU captain Jan Pirretas was ruled out of the final with an injury he suffered on Friday, a huge blow to WolfPack odds.

TRU was reduced to 10 men on Sunday when Marco Favaro was shown his second yellow card after a challenge at the 70-minute mark, his jettisoning catapulting No. 3 UBC into the driver’s seat.

Domenico and his brother, Alesandro, were brought into the game before the 80th minute, replacements for injured WolfPack players Ryan Lewis and Mikkel Rosenlund, the substitutions part of head coach John Antulov’s plan to keep the undermanned WolfPack’s precarious championship hopes alive.

Alesandro scored in the 101st minute, his goal in the first half of extra time giving 10-men TRU a 1-0 lead, the poacher’s strike sending more than 2,500 fans (overflow bleachers were full and some spectators were forced to park darn near Juniper) in attendance into a state of pandemonium, with orange flares lighting up the darkening sky, while night appeared to be falling on UBC’s championship aspirations.

The goal was set up by 6-foot-4 German forward Jost Hausendorf, who arrived in Kamloops just in time to blow his knee out eight minutes into the Pack's first game in 2021, an injury that cost him his Canada West rookie campaign and required intense rehab.

Hausendorf returned to the lineup this season and all of the hard work paid off on Sunday, when the super sub rumbled down the left side and delivered a succulent cross into talisman Alesandro Comita.

“We did it for the team,” Domenico said. “He [Alesandro] put his [F-ing] heart on the pitch and I did, too. I just love this team. Sorry for swearing.”

Fans clad in orange and black were soon cursing into the dusk.

TRU — which conceded a goal in the 108th minute on Friday, allowing Cape Breton to draw level at 2-2 — relinquished a lead in the second half of extra-time again on Sunday, when Daniel Kaiser headed home a Thomas Gardner free kick in the 115th minute.

Penalties arrived and so did dancing, prancing WolfPack goalkeeper Jackson Gardner, who, if football supreme beings are real, is TRU’s diving deity incarnate — Godner might read the plaque on his campus statue.

He flapped like a bird. He did the Macarena. He did a handstand. He was a moustached cartoon character come to life. 

He was a championship saver.

Gardner, who made one leaping stop in the 2-1 penalty shootout triumph over No. 4 McMaster of Hamilton in a quarter-final heartstopper on Thursday and denied two attempts in the semifinal shootout on Friday, hurled himself toward UBC’s fourth penalty attempt, which struck the framework and stayed out.

With Elijah Dos Santos, Rosenlund, Alesandro Comita and Josh Banton each having converted from the spot, Patrick Izett ambled toward the 18-yard box from the halfway line while the crowd bursted with expectation — a goal and the trophy was theirs.

Izett was TRU’s fifth shooter and executioner on Thursday and Friday, the man of the moment who scored to seal victories both nights.

KTW asked him on Friday if he was willing to do it again on Sunday.

“Absolutely. It’s taken years off my life, but that’s fine,” Izett said. “I’m happy to be doing it for the lads.”

Izett blew his shot over the crossbar and held his head in his hands. It was impossible not to think of Roberto Baggio in World Cup 1994. A hush blew over the crowd. Surely, this was one bridge too far.

“I think it finally got to me,” Izett said after the game. “What a moment. There’s so much going on. It’s surreal.”

UBC’s sixth shooter, Kaiser, scored to put immense pressure on the Pack’s sixth shooter, Jonathan Rinaldi, who was substituted into the game late in the second half of extra-time, in part because of his penalty-kick prowess.

The Kamloopsian — coming in cold and with the weight of his team and city on his shoulders — melted a lazer into the net, bulging the old onion bag before appealing to the frenzied Den.

“He buried it and it was great,” said Antulov, who seemed in a daze when talking to reporters before the scrum was interrupted by a Banton bearhug, a long, sentimental embrace. “Elated. So happy. So happy for the guys, the way they battled and gutted it out. I’m ecstatic.”

Rinaldi and Alesandro Comita were ball boys when TRU played host to the 2017 U Sports Men's Soccer Championship.

Gardner made sure Izett will not be remembered for his mistake, the graduating shot-stopper from Chilliwack making a full stretch stop on UBC’s seventh shooter to set the stage for the Megaphone Man, the healthy scratch turned hometown hero.

Domenico looked eager to reach the spot and his perfectly placed penalty was unreachable, a shot heard across the country that spurred yet another mad mob of fans onto the field (they rushed the pitch on Thursday and Friday, too), the spectators ignoring loud-speaker instructions to stay put while lighting flares and embracing players.

“I can’t think of anyone better tonight to seal the win than the Comita brothers,” Izett said. “They are Kamloops. You saw it tonight, with all the fans that were here. The singing, the chanting … everything was unreal. It’s what we play for.”

Added Gardner: “Look at the support. Are you kidding me? We had so much going against us. I cannot be prouder of this group. We deserved it. We worked our asses off.”

While teammates accepted medals from organizers and hung them around their necks, Banton spotted one of the club’s inspirations, eight-year-old Jude Mitton, a Grade 5 student at Lloyd George elementary who suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. 

Banton cleared a path for Mitton — whom the club signed to a contract in September — to drive his scooter onto the pitch, where he celebrated with the squad and took his place in the championship photo.

“This is bitter-sweet,” said Mitton’s mother, Kasha. “It’s quite amazing. This is community at its finest, really bringing the spirit and talking about inclusivity and feeling like you’re part of the team.”

Added Jude’s father, Jeff, who fought through a frog in his throat: “It’s really cool for Jude to be able to experience something like this. It’s more than we could have imagined he would have taken part of when this whole thing started this year.”

When TRU went down 1-0 to McMaster on Thursday, it was on the verge of becoming a club remembered for the wrong reasons, a host team that did not belong, a perennial underachiever that was bounced in Round 1 of the Canada West post-season and floundered on the national stage.

What has happened since is beyond storybook, an unforgettable chapter of Kamloops sports history.

“And now we’re No. 1, baby,” Domenico said. “We’re No. 1, man! Let’s go!”

EXTRA HONOURS

Akwasi Agyekum was covered in hardware on Sunday.

The TRU midfielder from Calgary earned the Nike Performer of the Game Award for the Pack in the gold-medal tilt and the Championship MVP Award.

Agyekum was also named to the Championship All-Star Team, along with teammates Gardner, Banton and Dos Santos.