Mount Royal University quickly dropped its college designation after it was officially granted university status in 2009. Following suit, Cougar Athletics set its sights on Canada’s premier post-secondary athletics division.
Better standard, better recruits — but better results?
Beginning in the 2012–13 season, the Cougars were awarded full Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) membership and placed in the Canada West conference.
Little was expected of Calgary’s newest university and joining the CIS Canada West conference posed as intimidating. The Cougars soon found themselves squaring off against larger, more established athletic programs.
“The reality is you have to experience it first-hand, to live it and compete in it to fully appreciate the skill level and the preparation required to be a member of Canada West and the CIS,” says Karla Karch, Mount Royal athletic director, adding that, as a department, the Cougars prepared for the transition through good old-fashioned “homework.”
“I’ve always said it would take us three to five years to establish who Cougar Athletics is within Canada West and the CIS.”
There were those who said it would take Mount Royal longer than five years to make its mark.
Now, in a class filled with heavyweights that includes the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, University of British Columbia and University of Saskatchewan, Mount Royal set out to prove the naysayers wrong.
As a longtime member of the Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference (ACAC), the Cougars dominated for decades. No matter the sport, the Cougars regularly set the standard for ACAC athletics. Tired of being a big fish in a small pond, Mount Royal was ready to transition into the CIS Canada West conference.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, it wasn’t a great start.
#8: TYLER SCHMIDT Men’s Volleyball Position: Outside Hitter Program: Bachelor of Business Administration Schmidt was named 2014–15 Canada West Rookie of the Year, becoming the first ever male Cougar student athlete to win the award. He was also named to the CIS All-Rookie Team. He led all Canada West rookies in nearly every statistical category, finishing the season with 254 kills, 96 digs and 301.5 points.
In Mount Royal’s first weekend of CIS competition, the men’s and women’s soccer squads lost their season openers by a combined score of 11-0. The men’s side finished the year with a 4-10-1 record, while the women’s side went 1-7-4. That same season both the men’s and women’s basketball teams recorded 5-17 records; men’s volleyball had little luck going 8-14. Men’s hockey struggled with a 7-21 record; women’s hockey went 8-20.
“We’ve learned so many valuable lessons, from travel to training, which we are incorporating into how we operate,” says Karch.
“Over the past four years, we have learned not only how to exist in the cis, but become competitive.”
— Karla Karch, athletic director
“An athlete’s goal is always to improve and graduate to the next level of competition. As Mount Royal transitioned into a university, athletics was always a part of the long-term plan. The CIS is the highest level of amateur sport in Canada and it only made sense that as we moved forward as an institution, our student-athletes were afforded the same opportunity,” says Karch.
A lot has changed since the Cougars’ inaugural CIS campaign. Fast-forward four years to 2016 and the Cougars have made significant improvements on the ice, pitch and court.
“Moving into the CIS was a steep learning curve, for some programs more than others. There were many people who had their doubts, but we knew that if we hired the right people, it would take care of itself,“ says Karch. “Over the past four years, we have learned not only how to exist in the CIS, but become competitive.”
#5: ANGELA DRISCOL Women’s Basketball Position: Guard Program: Bachelor of Arts She is known as a relentless defender and leads by example on and off the court. Driscoll led Canada West with 63 steals last season. That ranked her fifth nationally across the entire CIS.
In the first three seasons, the Cougars had only one team make the playoffs each year. This season, five of the eight varsity programs qualified for the postseason. Each season, the Cougars earn more team and individual accolades at the conference and national levels. And, in the 2014–15 season, the Cougars finished in a dead heat with their cross-town rival, the University of Calgary, for the Crowchild Classic hockey portion of the competition.
Karch says much of the Cougars’ recent success can be attributed to the University’s dedication to recruitment. Since entering the CIS, Mount Royal has faced many challenges. The core of their success can be found thanks to the institution’s dedication to finding the right people.
“We would be nowhere without our outstanding academic programming, facilities and financial support. We believe that over the years we have made strides with the work we do and as a result, people are now hearing our name,” she says.
The rapid success is correlated with the talented players and coaches who want to represent Mount Royal as its young athletic program begins to make its mark in the CIS.
“Success breeds success. We will never remain idle. Our staff is always looking to move forward and they continuously strive to get better.”
Update Sept. 15, 2016 ― By Jonathan Anderson
A student of the game
The Mount Royal men’s soccer team is off to a strong start in 2016
With his freshmen season behind him, men’s soccer coach Ryan Gyaki has his sights set on a championship campaign with Mount Royal University. Looking to build on last year’s success, Gyaki sees his young club poised to sit atop of the table.+ Read more
“Last year’s run to the playoffs changed the team’s mentality,” says Gyaki. “This year’s group are more workmen-like, more disciplined and more goal orientated.”
After all, Gyaki knows success both at home and internationally. The former Canadian youth soccer player of the year represented Canada professionally while playing in England and in Germany’s top leagues.
He is also a highly qualified coach.
During his tenure in Germany, with an injury keeping him off the pitch, Gyaki received his UEFA-Class A coaching license, an accreditation that only a handful of Canadian citizens have obtained. By comparison domestically, Canada Soccer has awarded fewer than 80 Class A coaching licenses since the federation began the process in 2003.
What makes Gyaki’s accreditation so impressive is not just the amount of dedication, knowledge and ability required to obtain the document, but which country awarded it to him. Even the least of soccer fans know Germany has been an international sensation with their soccer program, whether it be in recent World Cups, European Championships or the Olympics.
To obtain the distinguished coaching qualification, three factors were analyzed before the Mount Royal skipper was accepted into the program. His resume as a player, coaching experience and scores on previous licenses all determined his acceptance.
Shaun Lowther, technical director for the Alberta Soccer Association, sees Gyaki as someone who has taken his role as coach very seriously. Lowther feels Cougars soccer is bound to benefit from his teachings.
“He’s gone out, spent quite a lot of time, and got his badges from Germany, which is obviously one of the best soccer nations in the world, renowned for their coaching education,” says Lowther.
“I think it’s huge for the players in that 18 to 22 age range to have a coach that, one, is qualified, but, two, has played the game at a very high level, to pass on his knowledge and help them continue to develop as soccer players.”
According to Gyaki, the main take-away from gaining his coaching accreditation was learning to think about soccer differently, to break it down, and to see it in a different light. And then, how to teach that.
He believes what he has learned allow him to continuously grow as a coach, allowing him to take his experiences and actually give them back to your players both individually and as a group.
“The World Champions (Germany), they are always doing something special. They continue to develop amazing players and then teach amazing tactics,” says Gyaki.
Tactics are what this year’s Cougars squad will pride itself on. Currently sitting at 5-1 in Canada West standings through six contests and only three points behind the Prairie division lead, coach Gyaki likes his team’s professionalism and team culture.
“No matter what happens we are going to play hard,” he says. “We try and play a very nice style of soccer with tactics and thought. Possession-based. We want the ball and we want to create beautiful soccer.”
Prior to each match the Mount Royal bench boss tells his side two things: impress and enjoy.
“We want to impress people with how we work and how we defend,” he says.
“But we move the ball and we want the ball. Sometimes that doesn’t happen but we still find a way to win through desire and work ethic.”
The next five of seven league matches for the men’s team will be played on campus, beginning Saturday, Sept. 24 when the Cougars take on the UBC Thunderbirds at 1:30.
In the midst of this home stand, the Cougars will host the Calgary Dinos on Oct. 7 in the Friday Night Lights game. The Friday Night Lights game also signifies the final weekend of Mount Royal’s #30DaysOfBlue series.Check out the Cougars Athletics schedule
Ryan Gyaki, the men’s soccer coach, made an instant impact.
Well versed in the “beautiful game,” the Calgary native was named Canada’s youth player of the year in 2005 before signing in Europe to play professional soccer. While in Germany, Gyaki received his UEFA-A coaching qualification from the German Football Association — a coaching distinction not many Canadians hold.
“I pursued my coaching licences while I was in Germany to have a fallback plan,” says Gyaki. “When I came home I wanted to be involved at the most elite level locally. I fell in love with this program immediately.”
Gyaki joined the squad in 2013–14 and spent the next two seasons as an assistant coach. In 2015–16, Gyaki took over the head coaching duties and led his squad to a 7-4-1 record, finishing four points behind leader University of Calgary.
Impressed and motivated to advance the program, Gyaki likes what he’s seen so far.
“I have experience with the national team — professional soccer — I know what top level is,” he says. “I think people are going to be surprised by MRU as we continue to come up.”
On the other side of the ball, the women’s soccer team is fielding quality transfer recruits. Reaghan Zilkie joined the Cougars for their initial season as a red shirt after she spent two seasons playing NCAA Div. 1 soccer in Arkansas.
“I was very excited about their new program,” says Zilkie. “Coming from ACAC we’ve built some bad habits but we’re on the right track, I’ve seen the improvements first-hand every year.”
Improvements have yet to transfer into dominating victories but Zilkie believes it’s only a matter of time.
“We’ve had some really good recruits come in, not only with a lot of promise but excellent training habits,” she says. “As an older player, it’s nice to say, I can see them being really good in four years.”
During the 2015–16 season, five (men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball, and men’s hockey) out of eight of the Cougars teams made the playoffs. For a school that is only in their fourth year of CIS play, it’s an outstanding accomplishment.
Success for Cougar Athletics arrived sooner than anyone could have expected. Big things are in the works for Mount Royal in 2016–17 and beyond.
Photo by Chao Zhang
The success of the Mount Royal University men’s hockey team is evident, and the University is attracting players who are eager to don blue for the Cougars and play Canada’s favourite game at a CIS level.
But did you know that the Cougars’ men are also adept at flexing their academic muscles? The team is finding that they are attracting highly desired talent due to Mount Royal’s scholastic options.
Meet Tyler Fiddler, Cody Cartier and Cam Maclise. All three players produced impressive statistical seasons on the ice during their time at MRU. But when it came to choosing a post-secondary education, academics — not athletics — was their main priority.
Fiddler, who finished second in Canada West scoring, chose to transfer to Mount Royal after one year at the University of Calgary. The former Calgary Hitmen captain indicated Mount Royal’s smaller class sizes made the difference for him.
“As a small town guy, I found Mount Royal to be a better fit,” he says, explaining that while playing for the Calgary Hitmen, he took two classes at Mount Royal to test the waters. Now, with three seasons under his belt, the product of Prince Albert, SK, feels he made the right decision.
Cartier, who hails from Sylvan Lake, AB, chose to play closer to home after hitting the ice for one season at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, PA.
The five-foot-nine forward has been enrolled at Mount Royal for three years now and has his sights set on a Bachelor of Business Administration.
“Mount Royal’s transition into the CIS, becoming a university, becoming well-known overall for academics and athletics was a big factor in me choosing to come here.”
— Cam maclise, men’s hockey team (MRU)
Cartier, set the league ablaze in 2014-15 season, his second full year with Mount Royal. He was third in Canada West scoring and was named a CIS First Team All-Star (the first Mount Royal student athlete to earn that honour). His national accolades didn’t end there, Cartier was also named a CIS Academic All-Canadian in each of his four seasons with the Cougars.
When student-athletes transfer from one university to another, they are required to sit out a year of play — commonly referred to as “redshirting” — a practice that prevents athletes from jumping ship just to secure better sports standings. For Fiddler, Cartier and Maclise, their desire to attend MRU meant a year off the ice.
Well worth the sacrifice, says Cartier.
“My transfer was mainly about school,” he says. “The main thing for me was, Mount Royal’s transition into the CIS, becoming a university, becoming well-known overall for academics and athletics was a big factor in me choosing to come here.”
Maclise is also seeking his Bachelor of Business Administration. The former Canadian Junior Hockey League player of the year transferred to Mount Royal from the CIS athletic powerhouse University of New Brunswick.
In the past four seasons competing in Canada West the men’s hockey team has established itself as a competitor on the ice, finishing this past season with a 17-8-3 record.
But for many of the Cougars, success in the classroom is just as important as success on the ice.