By Thomas Becker
They're battle tested and raring to go. It's PLAYOFF time for the men's soccer Panthers.
In the second half of the season, no team has had a tougher path to the playoffs than UPEI, especially considering they had to scrape and claw for every point they earned.
"I think in the last half of the season, the team grew up a lot," said head coach Lewis Page.
Going into the crucial weekend that was, the Panthers sat in eighth place – two spots out of a playoff spot. After earning a point in a 1-1 draw against Acadia, they followed that up the next day with a huge 1-0 win over Dalhousie in a win or go home scenario.
"It was a pretty emotional feeling," said striker Mohammad Jaber, who scored the playoff-clinching goal against Dalhousie. "It was a big win for us going into the playoffs and it gives us confidence."
Since the Oct. 1 match against the undefeated Cape Breton Capers – in which they lost a hard fought battle 2-1 – the Panthers have been playing "playoff-level" soccer because they could ill afford to surrender points in the standings.
"Since the Cape Breton game, the team's confidence has increased tremendously," said fullback and captain Jeff Moore. "Our team played really well that game and we almost got the result against them. It gave us the mindset that we can beat any team in this league, and we've been playing with that mentality ever since."
That confidence Moore is talking about has resonated with his teammates and they're ready to face their biggest test yet.
"Our mindset heading into the playoffs is to win the AUS and I think we can do it," Jaber said.
The first opponent standing in their way is the Acadia Axemen (5-4-3), who finished a point ahead of the Panthers (5-5-2) during the regular season. Head-to-head, the Axemen defeated UPEI 3-0 on Sept. 16, but the Panthers rebounded in the Oct. 28 match that finished in a 1-1 deadlock.
For the most part the two teams are evenly matched. During the season, Acadia finished with a plus-6 point differential compared to UPEI's plus-1. The offensively gifted Axemen placed third in goals with 24, but seventh in goals allowed with 18. The Panthers, who take pride in their grind-it-out defensive scheme, finished eighth in goals with 14, but placed fourth in goals allowed with 13.
"We've faced Acadia twice this season, so we know what to expect," Moore said. "We're playing our best soccer right now and we're all confident we can get the job done.
"In order for our team to be successful this weekend we need to continue to play to our strengths. We are a strong defensive team, so it's important for us to continue to play a physical game and capitalize on our scoring chances when they come," Moore added.
Moore believes this team has something special brewing and he's made a believer in not only his teammates, but also the people who represent the name on the front of his jersey.
"This team is like family and it makes me very proud to see how far this family has come over the course of the season," he said. "I believe the team peaked at the right time and that's something other teams should definitely be intimidated by."
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AUS Playoff schedule hosted by Cape Breton
Nov. 2: Memorial (6) vs. UNB (3) – 4 p.m.
UPEI (5) vs. Acadia (4) – 7 p.m.
Nov. 3: Lowest ranked QF winner vs. Cape Breton (1) – 4 p.m.
Highest ranked QF winner vs. St FX (2) – 7 p.m.
Nov. 5: SF winner vs. SF winner – 2 p.m