ABBOTSFORD — Soccer DNA may hold no official weight in scientific circles, yet if you’ve watched the play of Fraser Valley Cascades’ central defender and criminology major Simi Lehal the past two seasons, you can’t help but wonder if the beautiful game does indeed have a biology all its own.
How else can you explain that as the high-scoring 2016 Cascades have morphed into a defence-first unit in 2017, that the tall and athletic Lehal has been able to seamlessly move from attacking freshman forward to sophomore stopper at central back?
On Friday, as the stretch drive to the post-season begins in earnest with a date in Langley against arch-rival Trinity Western (5 p.m.), Lehal and the Cascades (4-2-2) are well aware that a sweep of the weekend set which concludes at home Sunday (2 p.m., MRC Sports Complex), would vault them past the Spartans (6-2-0) and into third in the standings with four matches remaining. Yet that is much more easily said than done.
And if they’re going to make that a reality, it’s all going to start through their newly-adopted defensive mindset.
Last season, with the prodigious striker Monika Levarsky leading the way, UFV was second in the conference with 34 goals.
Her departure, along with that of two-time Canada West first-team all-star defender Tristan Corneil prompted the off-season recalibration.
And until the Cascades allowed a second-half penalty kick last Saturday in its 1-1 draw with the UBC Okanagan Heat, Lehal was part of a UFV defence which had strung together four clean sheets and 423 minutes of shutout soccer.
Of course during that streak, her offensive flair never abandoned her. Lehal’s highlight-reel free kick was the difference as the Cascades went on the road and defeated the then-U Sports’ No. 10 nationally-ranked MacEwan Griffins 1-0 in Edmonton.
ONE PLAYER OR TWO?
In the beautiful game, beauty can indeed be in the eye of the beholder.
That point was driven home with UFV head coach Rob Giesbrecht in the fall of 2015 as he wrapped up his 2016 recruiting class with a host of hopefuls, including a near-6-foot-tall athlete who was leading a most unique two-team existence.
“It was pretty funny when I was recruting her,” begins Giesbrecht. “Every time I scouted her playing for her club team (Surrey United) she was playing up front. And then every time I watched her with her Fleetwood Park high school team she was playing in the back.”
Each time, of course, she impressed, winning balls in the air with her anticipation and height, and using her frame to seal opposition player to win or gain possession.
The fact that she could play at either end with equal panache was a huge bonus. Giesbrecht almost felt like he was recruiting two different players at the same time.
“I have always had great respect for both of her coaches,” he says of Fleetwood Park’s Sunny Uppal and Surrey United’s Spiro Pegios. “So I really picked their brains about Simi.”
The more Giesbrecht thought about it this past off-season, as the substantial shoes of both Levarsky and Corneil needed to be filled, he decided that the Cascades’ best offence was going to be a good defence, and thus he moved Lehal to centre back where she has learned under the veteran Karlee Pedersen, whose rock-steady play makes her a team MVP candidate.
“She’s dominant in the air, a strong athlete, and plays with such pace,” he began of Lehal, who is part of a defensive unit that also includes Surrey United grads Jasmine Mangat, Taylor Nekic and Kelsey Mitchell. “And she distributes it so well. All of that lends itself to being a good defender.”
SOCCER DNA DEFINED
Nothing has been easy this season for the Cascades.
Coming off a program-best nine wins last season, they not only had to replace six graduated starters, but they have battled an epic slew of injuries that has forced all hands on deck.
“It’s been crazy, weird stuff,” Giesbrecht begins. “We’ve had three concussions, two broken fibulas, and on top of all that, we’re just a young team.”
Yet within that youth movement, Lehal brings a physical component to her position that combined with future experience, has the potential to make her a conference all-star before her career is finished.
And she says her multi-sport background as a basketball player with the Fleetwood Park Dragons has helped her a lot patrolling the back end of the Cascades’ operation.
“It has definitely helped,” she says referencing how much communication was an important part of her job guarding the low block on the basketball court. “We talk a lot on the back line. I am always talking with my outside wingers to shift and it all comes back to basketball for me.”
Truth be told, Lehal says she always preferred her time as a defender.
“I think I can be a centre back for the rest of my university career,” she says. “It’s the place where I feel like I can make a name for myself. But if we ever do come to a time when something has to change, I would be willing. It’s whatever is best for our team.”
Good soccer DNA. You can never have enough of it.
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