By Thomas Becker
It's an exciting time to be a UPEI Panthers fan.
Not since 1987-88 has there been three different Panther teams represented on the national stage, until now.
That season saw the men's hockey, women's basketball and men's basketball teams capture conference championships before competing against Canada's best.
Fast forward to today, and after earning their first AUS championship in 22 years, UPEI's women's basketball joins sprinter Bailey Smith and the women's hockey team, who'll all compete for U SPORTS medals over the next two weeks.
Led by the potent back court duo of Jenna Mae Ellsworth (20.5 points per game) and Reese Baxendale (19.0 points per game), the UPEI Panthers finished with the AUS's best record at 17-3 before taking down their rival, the Acadia Axewomen 78-59 in the championship game.
Two-time AUS Defensive Player of the Year Carolina Del Santo missed the final three games before the Christmas break after injuring her knee in a game against St. FX. Ellsworth also injured her knee the following day and was out until the New Year, as the Panthers managed their way to a 5-2 record.
Upon their return in a Jan. 4 game against Acadia, UPEI reeled off eight straight wins before running into the Axewomen, who ended their streak in the rematch. But the resilient Panthers finished the year with four straight victories, including two big wins at Memorial, where they outscored their opponent by scores of 91-72 and 103-78.
Ellsworth was named an AUS all-star for the fourth consecutive year and earned the conference's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. Baxendale was named an all-star for first time, while Lauren Rainford earned a spot on the All-Rookie Team.
Nationals (Ottawa): The basketball team takes centre stage at TD Place in Ottawa where they'll face the Ryerson Rams Thursday at 2 p.m. (AST). The game can be streamed online free at CBC Gem. Click here for tournament schedule.
This 60-metre sprinter will make her third consecutive appearance at nationals this Thursday after a strong showing at the AUS Championship. The track and field meet will be hosted at the University of Alberta this time around.
Smith has three AUS gold medals to her resumé and she added a silver this season. She's also coming off a silver medal performance at national last year when she crossed the finish line with a time of 7.49 seconds.
Smith's best time so far this season came during the preliminary heat at the AUS Championships when she clocked in at 7.60 seconds (which ranks 13th in Canada). If the sprinter wants to reach the podium again, she'll have to find a way to shave off a couple tenths of a second.
Nationals (University of Alberta): Smith will race Thursday at 9 p.m. (AST) and again at 10 p.m. (AST) if she qualifies for the finals. The races can be watched at https://usports.live/
With a balanced offence, stingy defence and top-notch goaltending, UPEI's women's hockey team enjoyed their strongest regular season to date, compiling an impressive 20-7-1 record. They had a winning record against every team but the St. FX X-Women.
The Panthers benefitted from the continued growth of sophomores Taylor Gillis and Jolena Gillard. Gillis led the way with 12 goals, while Gillard finished with 10 goals and 10 assists for a team-high 20 points. Fourth-year veteran Kaylee Dufresne enjoyed a breakout year with 11 goals and seven assists.
Blueliners Sophie Vandale and Ally Clements had identical +21 ratings which was second best in the conference. The back end was secured by netminder Camille Scherger, who cemented herself as one of the best goalies in the country. She posted a 16-7 record with a conference-best 1.43 goals against average and .945 save percentage. She also broke a school record with seven shutouts.
Scherger was named a first-team all-star, while Gillard got the nod on the second team. Rookie Lexie Murphy earned a spot on the All-Rookie Team.
UPEI finally broke their first-round curse this season, when they took down the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleues in three games. Gillis netted the overtime goal in Game 3 to send them to the semifinals.
It was in the semifinals where the Panthers ran into a hot St. FX team, who were riding a 12-game win streak. Both games came down to the wire, but it was the X-Women who ultimately prevailed.
Nationals (UPEI): As hosts of the U SPORTS Women's Hockey Championship the Panthers will get another chance to play for a medal. The tournament is scheduled for March 12-15 with team seeding yet to be determined. For TICKET details, click here.