Panthers at the top of the class

UPEI are AUS champs. Photo by Pau Balite.

UPEI are AUS champs. Photo by Pau Balite.

If you would have told UPEI forward Jenelle MacKenzie when she first became a Panther five years ago that her team would own the AUS banner in 2012, she wouldn’t have believed you.

“I would have laughed in your face,” said a jubilant MacKenzie, celebrating not only a conference championship but her birthday as well. “Five years ago we were lucky if we kept X to single digits and we beat them yesterday.”

What a difference five years can make.

A surprising upset of the nationally ranked St. FX X-Women the day before set the stage for the graduating senior and her UPEI Panthers to accomplish what was unthinkable not long ago: winning the AUS championship. The Panthers rode another strong goaltending performance from Kristy Dobson to shutout the Mount Allison Mounties 3 – 0 Mar. 4 in front of a packed house at the final varsity sporting event at Memorial Arena.

MacKenzie said the last two days have been an “emotional roller coaster.”

“I think our win yesterday put us so over the edge. We have nothing left. Like I bawled crying yesterday; I have no tears left. We literally just won two championships. It’s amazing.”

Akin to the Mount Allison group at the opposite end of the rink, UPEI has steadily improved over the years, making themselves cozy around the league’s basement for a number of years. However, a respectable 13 – 10 regular season record, a hot goaltender at the right time and a shocking upset over St. FX has propelled the team from league’s worst in 2011 to AUS title-holders in 2012.

This is UPEI’s first championship in the program’s 10-year history.

The Panthers gave their vocal fans something to cheer about, including members of UPEI’s eliminated men’s basketball team in town for the AUS Final 6, when Christina Kelly scored 4:48 in to get her side on the board. Mount Allison had a five-on-three power play to try and even the score late in the frame but were unsuccessful.

UPEI scored another early in the next period when a wrist shot by Kelsey O’Donnell flew past goalie Meghan Corley-Byrne to give the Panthers the 2 – 0 edge. The Mounties didn’t help their chances much further in the second, only registering four shots.

Even without much sustained pressure from Mount Allison, UPEI head coach Bruce Donaldson told his girls to not take the competition lightly.

“My concern was that Mount A has a history of digging out of holes and they do a really good job of it. For me, it was about making sure we didn’t give them any momentum,” said Donaldson, honoured as AUS coach of the year earlier in the weekend.

UPEI appeared to take the advice to heart as their opponents struggled to get anything going. With 22 seconds remaining, Kelly sealed the Panthers’ victory by scoring on an empty net.

With the game’s fate already determined, Donaldson elected to put his fifth years on the ice to run down the clock—a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed by MacKenzie.

“The five of us went on and we got to finish our last moments at UPEI on the ice with the other seniors we played five years with. We couldn’t ask for much more than that.”

The AUS banner also provides a berth to nationals for the Panthers. They are seeded fourth ahead of this weekend’s tournament in Edmonton.

Before that competition begins, MacKenzie says she has the rest of her birthday to enjoy.

“It’s going to be a long but very happy bus ride home to PEI,” she smiled.

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Ian Froese

Ian was the Gazette's Editor-in-chief for Volume 146. He was the Sports Editor for Volumes 145 and 144.

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