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The reigning USports women’s champion soccer team, from MacEwan University in Edmonton, won’t get a chance to defend its title because of an administrative error.

As Canada’s top women’s university soccer teams play in the postseason this weekend, MacEwan’s players will sit idle and devastated, even though their 12-2 record was one of the best in USports.

MacEwan fell out of a playoff spot upon forfeiting 11 of those games – including nine wins – when it was deemed last week that the Griffins used an ineligible player.

MacEwan’s athletic department said it misinterpreted a USports eligibility rule that pertains to students transferring from the NCAA since the pandemic. That resulted in the team playing a woman who had run out of eligible years. The university self-disclosed its infraction after discovering it and USports imposed its automatic-forfeiture policy, which had an impact on all games in which the ineligible player participated.

The MacEwan women had a remarkable regular season, finishing on a 10-game win streak. They finished first in the Prairie Division and second in the Canada West Conference. Their record trailed only No. 1-ranked UBC (13-1). The MacEwan women were fired up for this postseason. Their thrilling run one year ago had resulted in the school’s first USports national championship.

In the locker room after their last game on Oct. 16, the Griffins were jubilant. They had decorated the stalls of their five graduating players with balloons, streamers and team photos. They played music and sang together – all in a heartwarming video they posted on the MacEwan soccer official Twitter account. The seniors had no idea they had just played their final university game.

That same day, the women received the surprising news that their season was over.

They were informed that the forfeitures meant MacEwan’s record plummeted to 3-11. That demoted the Griffins to sixth place in the division and out of the playoffs. Their celebration quickly turned to tears.

The MacEwan player deemed ineligible prepared what’s known as a compassionate appeal and presented it to the eligibility committee last week. That committee, which includes a representative of each of the four USports conferences, denied her appeal.

There are 14,000 student athletes competing within USports, the governing body that creates and communicates the eligibility policies and hands down any punishments. But the schools are responsible for their own due diligence to verify the eligibility of their athletes.

“It’s the responsibility of a number of people on campus and obviously, we’re going to go through a review here,” said Joel Mrak, MacEwan’s athletic director.

“We have to evaluate to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, because of the sheer magnitude of it and how disruptive this has been. We wouldn’t wish this on any other school or anyone, and I know we’re not the first school to go through this.”

Eligibility infractions are not new in USports, and this isn’t even the first one this school year. McMaster University’s football team forfeited two games in September after self-disclosing it had had used an ineligible player in those games.

MacEwan miscalculated how much eligibility remained for an athlete who had played some seasons in the United States at an NCAA Division I school. One of those seasons was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mrak said they discovered they had misinterpreted the USports eligibility rule while checking eligibility of NCAA transfers in other sports. It was too late – the soccer player had already played 11 games.

Some USports eligibility rules have changed since the pandemic, especially as they pertain to Canadian athletes returning from the NCAA.

NCAA athletes whose 2020-21 season was impacted by the pandemic received an extra year to get in that fourth full year of competition. In response to that, USports allowed any such an athlete wanting to leave the NCAA (Divisions 1 and 2) to use that extra year of eligibility in USports. This was a change, because before COVID, NCAA athletes returning to Canada after four NCAA seasons had no eligibility left to use in USports.

USports describes it as permitting an athlete to add a fifth year of eligibility, not to remove that 2020-21 year of NCAA participation from the athlete’s total. USports said it was confident it provided adequate direction and encouraged schools to ask for clarification on eligibility policies. The forfeitures sanction is stated upfront.

“We’re always working with member schools to find the optimal levels of education and awareness ... to ensure that we avoid these situations, and that any discussion about eligibility happens before participation occurs,” said Pierre Arsenault, USports CEO. “We’re always looking to improve that process.”

The team’s coach did not respond to an interview request. The Globe and Mail also reached out to some MacEwan players, but they, too, declined interviews. They are bracing for further sanctions that USports and Canada West could still apply to MacEwan. A few players did react on social media. While they didn’t point fingers, they expressed their disappointment.

Second-year player Grace Mwasalla, in an extensive post on Twitter, called it “an error that should have been caught back in August.”

“This was an error that was beyond the coaches and players, and we are the ones suffering from this mistake,” Mwasalla wrote. “It’s beyond me to think that the boardroom was our most formidable opponent this year.”

Anneke Odinga, a second-year defender for MacEwan, posted that she is “absolutely gutted and devastated.”

“I hope no other team ever experiences this,” Odinga wrote in her lengthy post. “I hope rules and mandatory checks are thoroughly reinforced moving forward.”

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