The University of Alberta Pandas rugby team will open their 2016 Canada West season at home, as they play host to the Lethbridge Pronghorns, Sunday at Foote Field. Game time is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. MT.
The Pandas previously played their games, including the 2015 Canada West Championship at Ellerslie Rugby Park, but this season marks the first time the Pandas will play their games at the U of A Campus, as both of their home games this season will take place at Foote Field. Tickets will be available on game day at Foote.
Alberta, who enters the season with a conference-leading 11 Canada West titles, stormed into the 2015 playoffs with a 3-1 regular season record, but fell victim to the eventual Champion Victoria Vikes in the semifinal. The Pandas opened their season with a loss in Calgary, but rebounded with three-straight victories, outscoring their opponents 102-49 during that span.
Lethbridge, who accounts for six of the remaining seven conference titles, advanced to the Canada West final after defeating the previously undefeated Calgary Dinos 35-25, but also fell victim to Victoria 50-17. Lethbridge advanced to the CIS National Championship based off their conference runner-up finish, but were once again defeated by Victoria in the fifth place game.
Both teams faced significant roster change over the summer, with key players graduating from each program. Lethbridge, however, will return three of their top five scorers from 2015, including fifth-year student-athletes Frederique Tremblay and Nicole Ronsky, who tied for 11th overall in Canada West with two tries each.
On the home side, the Pandas graduated three of their key players in Rebecca Fairbairn, CIS All-Canadian Julia Goss and conference all-star Elizabeth Steele. In their absence, the Pandas will have to rely on fellow CIS All-Canadian and Canada West All-Star scrum half Amanda Smith. Smith enters her final CIS season of eligibility following a season in which she tied for the Pandas lead, along with Goss and Steele, with four tries and 20 points.
“This is definitely a change-over year for us, with so many of our key players graduating from the program,” said Pandas head coach Matt Parrish. “We will have to rely heavily on our group of veteran players, but I’m also excited to see what our young players can bring to the team.”
Also returning for the Pandas is fellow fifth-year’s Sarah Haring and Amee Svatos. Like Smith, Haring is coming off a tremendous season in which she earned Canada West All-Star and CIS All-Canadian status, while Svatos is three years removed from earning the 2012 Canada West Rookie of the Year award, to go along with her 2013 CIS Tournament All-Star nod.
Despite the return of the trio of veterans, the Pandas will be in tough to match their conference-leading 121 points scored last season. They do, however, boast an incredibly youthful team chocked full of talent, including rookies Emily Bielech and Aly Anderen, as well as sophomores Savannah Dubien and Alexa Martin.
While the offence may take a dip in 2016, one thing the Pandas can count on is a stellar defence. Alberta finished second to Calgary with 83 points against in 2015, and have finished with a top-2 defence in every season since 1999.