Maegan McCrory stands on the field in tears as she watches the Trent University Excalibur celebrate the OUA women's lacrosse championship. Standing there, she knows the Mustangs have been robbed. To lose a gold medal in any sport is heartbreaking, but to know you weren't beaten fairly sparks a new level of gut-wrenching disappointment.
"I was mad, and I was angry, and I was more upset," McCrory says. "No one wants to lose, and the fact that it was one point and that one point made all the difference, it was crushing."
Trent University's first ever Ontario University Athletics (OUA) lacrosse championship, won last Oct. 23, will forever be marked with an asterisk. The Excalibur officially beat the Mustangs 11–10 in the gold medal game at McMaster University, but their one-point advantage came from a Western goal that was mistakenly attributed to them.
The blunder happened before halftime. The Mustangs had just scored, giving them what should've been a 6–3 lead. During the break, though, Mustang coach Garrett Loubert noticed that the scoreboard read 5–4 for Western — the first sign that something was off.
"I just went over to the timekeeper's booth and asked what was going on," says Loubert. "I just wanted to clarify that [6–3] was the score we believe it is, and up there on the scoring clock it says something different."
The error was not quite fixed, though. The scorekeepers did add a goal to Western's total, but neglected to remove the one they'd accidentally awarded to Trent on the game sheet. When the teams were told to take the field for the second half, the scoreboard showed a 6–4 Mustangs lead.
Despite continued protests from the Western bench, the referees insisted on continuing the game.
"It shook all of us up and our game changed completely," McCrory says. "We don't know what would've happened, but I do think we would've been a lot more calm and not as harebrained if that goal hadn't been allowed to go on."
Standard procedure would've been to talk to the team captains, but it didn't happen. Trent came out of the gate quick amidst the confusion, scoring twice in the early minutes of the half to seemingly tie the game at 6.
According to Loubert, there's no doubt that his team was severely affected by the disarray.
"There was no way we were going to lose that game in the second half," he says. "I've never seen that."
The final score of the game was officially 11–10 for Trent, breaking Western's streak of five straight OUA championships. If the Mustangs had won, the team would've tied the OUA record for most consecutive titles.
"Very, very, very upsetting," says teammate Jacqueline Owens, a first team OUA All-Star along with McCrory. "After the game everyone was either in tears or mad; everyone just knew that what happened wasn't right. In the moment no one was really listening to how we felt about that."
After the game, the Mustangs huddled together on the bus. Despite the devastation, the players and coaches immediately started building a case. As they pulled onto the 403, they zeroed in on pinpointing the fake goal.
Assistant coach Tenyka Snider was at the forefront of the team's detective work. She began by identifying which player scored which goal to confirm the discrepancy on the game sheet. From that, they were able to pick out exactly which goal had been credited to Trent and which of Western's had been made up, but their work wasn't done.
Their CSI-style sleuthing continued back in London. The Mustangs coaches and players collected photos from the game and tried desperately to match image time stamps to the recorded times of goals on the game sheet. Using all the photos they could find from players' parents and even Gazette editors who were in attendance, Western managed to put together enough evidence to launch an appeal.
But even with the team's now-substantial body of proof, getting the OUA on board for a review was difficult. According to the league's rulebook for lacrosse, teams wishing to protest a game must do so within 30 minutes of the final whistle. Western's coaches did discuss their intent to appeal with OUA representatives after the game, but an extensive post-game medal ceremony lasted well over half an hour. As a result, the appeal was built as quickly as possible once the players boarded the bus.
From there, it was a tedious back-and-forth process with the OUA. Every question from Western went weeks before they received a response, and everything was brought to a committee for an official response. For months afterwards, the team was in limbo. They were restricted from talking about what really happened while the appeal was ongoing.
Seventy-nine days after the championship game, they had their answer. On Jan. 10 the OUA announced that it would award gold medals to Western's players. In their press release, they stated that the OUA Management Committee had come to this decision in conference with both Western and Trent.
"We conducted a review of the championship because we acknowledged that there was an error made," says OUA director of sport operations, Wally Gabler. "As a result of that review we've awarded gold medals to Western."
For some Mustangs, the announcement brought relief.
"I'm glad that we got some recognition for it because our coaches put in a lot of time as well as the athletic department," says Natalie Takeuchi, a third-year player. "It's been three months, so they've put a lot of effort into trying to at least get some sort of recognition."
For others, it didn't go far enough. The OUA allowed Trent to keep the championship banner and their title as 2016 women's lacrosse champions.
That little detail doesn't sit well with Western Athletics, who said in a statement that they would've preferred a different outcome after the three-month review process.
"To me, that's just their way of saying 'stop talking about it, give up, here's your medal,' " admits McCrory. "Just giving us the medal feels kind of like a participation award."
"It would be hard to say that we did get the championship without actually really playing the game properly," adds Takeuchi. For her and McCrory, receiving a gold medal doesn't make sense if they aren't considered champions.
Looking back, it's easy to see how the championship debacle could have been avoided.
The Mustangs take some solace that the OUA is now reviewing all their championship procedures. According to the team and players, though, the matter shouldn't have happened in the first place.
Although the OUA adamantly denies that there's any requirement to do so, the team's other championship games have been streamed online in recent years. A recording of the game would've solved the case immediately, and Western's players couldn't understand why video cameras weren't there — even the 2016 men's lacrosse championship against Trent at a similar venue was streamed online, though the championship was not OUA-sanctioned.
As well, McCrory — herself a lacrosse referee — says that women's lacrosse has a built-in system for identifying scoring errors; the three referees on the field rotate their positions every two goals.
"If the score changes, but you're in the wrong position for where you should be, that should should send a signal that you need to check the game sheet over," she explains. "I get that they don't want to prolong the game any longer, but at the same time it is a really major game."
With all said and done, the jury is out on whether or not the issue is solved. Western wishes the OUA would have named the team co-champions as they requested. Loubert says that even if the game sheet is verifiably wrong, it remains the official record of the game. Though the OUA acknowledges the scoring error, they said the outcome can't be changed.
Losing a five-year championship streak because of a unnecessary mistake will sting for a while and overshadow the incredible season they had — with six players being named OUA All-Stars.
"Every year Western has a target on their back in women's lacrosse," says Loubert. "If we're the standard of what a good lacrosse program is then I'm okay with losing a hard-fought battle in the final ... We promote being Western Mustangs, and I was really proud of what they did and what they accomplished."
Despite this season leaving a bad taste in Western's mouth, they're even more driven to win next year. On the same day as the gold medal announcement, a Trent player posted a photo of her 2016 champions tattoo on Instagram, representative of a spirited rivalry forming. The animosity between Western and Trent will give their games an extra spark next season.
"It'll be good to be back on the field and play Trent again and really get to see how the teams match up with a fair game," says Owens.
Her teammates would certainly agree. Most of the Mustangs will return for next season, with only three players expected to leave the team. They're in an excellent position to resume their championship streak after its brief pause in 2016.
For McCrory, a new season is Western's chance to remind the league why they won five straight championships in the first place.
"Before we were already close because we were determined to keep the streak, and now we're ready to work together to show that what happened at OUAs was a mistake."