For the sixth season in a row, the Queen’s Gaels women’s rugby team will face the Guelph Gryphons in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championship finals. During last weekend’s semifinal at Nixon Field in Kingston, Queen’s dominated the Western Mustangs 45-5 to secure another date with the Gryphons, as the Kingston-based squad looks to win their second consecutive provincial championship.
Heading into the finals this Friday evening, October 27, the Gaels are ranked second in Canada, trailing the Laval Rouge et Or in the U Sports top ten rankings. Throughout the season, Queen’s has dominated the competition, outscoring their opponents by a remarkable 432 points to 33 across six regular season games and last weekend’s OUA semifinals.
While the majority of the Gaels’ matches so far this season have been runaways, Queen’s is prepared for its toughest test of the year Friday night, especially considering Guelph went the distance when the two squads met earlier this season, with Queen’s taking a narrow 25-20 win at home on September 23.
On Friday night, Queen’s and Guelph will face off for the 22nd time in the history of the two programs. While the Gryphons lead the overall head-to-head competition between the two schools, with 14 victories to the Gaels’ seven, Queen’s had held the upper hand the last two years, winning the three most recent matchups between the two teams, including a 29-24 victory at home in last year’s OUA Championship game.
With both teams having already secured a spot in next month’s U Sports National Championship tournament at Laval University, Friday’s contest will be a battle for provincial supremacy, as the Gaels look to further cut into Guelph’s lead on the all-time provincial record. Since the first OUA women’s rugby championship banner was handed out in 1994, no school has won more titles than Guelph, with 16 championships in total. Guelph’s most recent crown came in 2021, when they beat Queen’s 32-23 in Kingston.
While the Gryphons continue to be one of the strongest women’s university rugby teams in the country, no school has given them a run for their money of late quite like the Gaels have. Since winning their first provincial title in 2013, the Tricolour’s worst results have been fourth-place finishes in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Since 2017, Queen’s has yet to miss a trip to the OUA finals, also earning spots in six consecutive U Sport national championship tournaments, including next month’s event in Quebec City.
With the Gryphons dominating the OUA record books, the Gaels have certainly been the more impressive team when it comes to nationals. Since 2017, Queen’s has earned two silver medals and a national championship in 2021 at home in Kingston. Meanwhile, in the same period of time, the Gryphons have earned just a single silver medal.
Over the years, Queen’s has always had a strong group of core players, capable of putting up big numbers and scoring much-needed tries when they matter most. One player who’s been a constant on the Gaels roster since joining the program back in 2019 is Carmen Izyk from Blackie, Alberta. The fifth-year nursing student has been a force to be reckoned with throughout her four seasons with Queen’s.
As one of several veterans on the Gaels’ roster, Izyk has been near the top of the scoring charts throughout the 2023 season. In six regular season games, Izyk put up a total of 10 tries, or 50 points on the year, improving her total to 31 throughout her career with the Gaels, the most all-time in school history. Earlier this month, Izyk was named one of two Queen’s student athletes of the week, following her strong performance in the Gaels’ regular-season finale against McMaster, where she scored two tries.
Heading into Friday’s OUA Championship, Izyk said the team is in a good place, as the momentum over the last several months has been building toward another provincial final. “It’s been a build, for sure,” she said. “Each game is getting bigger and bigger, and more and more important and exciting. I think it’s just starting to reach a pinnacle… and there’s just so much energy. Everyone’s really looking forward to displaying all the work that we put in.”
Despite leading the OUA in tries this season, Izyk emphasized that rugby is very much a team sport, as all athletes on the roster play an important role in the team’s overall success. “Everything is in the context of the team. Basketball is one of those [sports where] if you have a star player, that player can carry the rest of the team. Rugby is not like that. Rugby is sort of a weak-link sport, so you’re only as strong as your weakest player,” she noted.
With six regular season wins under their belts, the Gaels have been making noticeable improvements since their first game against Trent in early September. According to Izyk, the last two months have allowed the team to strengthen as a unit, while making each player stronger in their own right. “The progression through our season has sort of been working out kinks… The better we play next to each other, and the more we are able to work off each other…. the more things I’m able to do personally.”
While Queen’s has been one of the strongest women’s rugby programs in Canada in recent years, its success hasn’t stopped coaches from implementing new systems and strategies each season, all with an eye to continue the team’s dominance moving forward. Izyk noted the team has become more comfortable with these new systems over the past few months, “As we’ve had more games and tweaked some things. I think it’s just helped us continue to grow and develop as a team, and that’s resulted in more success… I think it’s been a lot of growth and working off each other.”
Considering the fact Friday night will mark the sixth consecutive OUA Championship matchup between the Gaels and Gryphons, Izyk said the rivalry between the two schools is at an all-time high: “The [rivalry] almost makes it more exciting and a better game because… it feels like there’s a lot on the line.”
Despite the heated rivalry between the two programs, Izyk spoke highly of the Gryphons’ strength as a team. “I think they’re a really good squad. They’re a strong team. They’re very gritty. They’re very physical… We’re looking forward to having that competition and challenging ourselves.”
With the Gaels finishing the 2023 OUA regular season undefeated, Queen’s earned the right to host this Friday’s provincial championship game. With a capacity crowd expected to be on hand at Nixon Field, Izyk said the home fans have a huge role in motivating the team: “There’s just such a great ambience and energy [at Nixon Field] — it’s like having a 16th player on the field, just knowing that your family and friends are there watching and supporting you and rooting for you.”
Having been with the Gaels for the last four seasons, Izyk is no stranger to big moments like the OUA Championship. Heading into Friday’s game, she explained the advice she’d give to some of her younger teammates as they prepare for the first major test of their university sports careers. “One of my coach’s favourite things is ‘being where your feet are.’ [It’s about] not putting too much pressure on yourself and just enjoying the fact that you get to be here with such a special team,” she noted.
The 2023 OUA Women’s rugby finals are set for Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, with kickoff at 7 p.m. at Nixon Field on Queen’s campus.