ABBOTSFORD —More depth. Better recruits.
And maybe a chance to improve on the school’s U Sports’ regular-season wins record from a season ago?
It’s a credit to the Fraser Valley Cascades men’s soccer program that those are its most prevalent preseason themes because if you do the math on paper, the team which opens Canada West conference play Friday (6:30 p.m.) at UBC is set to begin a campaign most would brand as a re-build.
The Cascades were rocked by off-season graduation totals to the point where just four starters return to lead a roster which went a program-best 8-6-2 and lost a quarterfinal playoff matchup with Calgary during the 2016 regular season.
Yet if you witnessed the way this new group of Cascades knotted up the visiting NCAA D2 powerhouse Simon Fraser Clan on Saturday afternoon en route to a 1-1 draw, you got ample proof that UFV head coach Tom Lowdnes wants nothing to do with one-trick ponies.
“My plan for the program is not a one-to-two-year fix,” said Lowndes. “It’s a five-year plan. And I think that the players that we are bringing in will be able to help take us to the next level. I am excited about our future.”
On Saturday, nothing symbolized both the present and future of UFV men’s soccer than the burgeoning partnership along the team’s back line.
And for Lowndes, there was huge significance in watching fourth-year centre back and team captain Tammer Byrne, the program’s first-ever two-time Canada West all-star, welcoming pure freshman John Kasper, the Whitecaps residency standout who has been called the No. 1 recruit in the program’s 12-year U Sports history.
“I look at them and I see the eventual passing of a torch,” Lowndes says of the pair. “That’s what it’s going to be, Tammer to John Kasper. Tammer is a warrior. He wants to play 90 minutes every game and that attitude and belief is what I want for my team.”
Symbolically, what better place to start than the backbone of the team: It’s defence.
Lowndes can remember back to his first season as head coach, back in 2015, when he had to stop Byrne, who had dislocated his hip in a game at UBC, from trying to play the second half.
“I think we have more players this year that are willing to buy in as to how to defend,” the coach adds.
Of course, Kapser is one of them and his grit is unquestioned.
Just as he was making inroads as a 10th grader with the Canadian Under-15 team, he was diagnosed with cancer in his left leg. He not only beat it and learned to walk again, he is on cue to help lead the Cascades as a first-year university player.
Yet the freshman effect wasn’t just happening along the back line.
The Cascades took a 1-0 lead in the 57th minute when another rookie, midfielder Parman Minhas, made a determined drive into the penalty area and was taken down by a Clan player.
Gurmaan Jhaj, who along with Byrne, Brady Weir and Ryan Donald are the team’s only returning starters, stepped to the spot and fired a high shot past Clan keeper Miguel Hof.
“People might think ‘UFV is more a grinding team’ but I think we have some really talented players,” said Jhaj, a third-year midfielder.
Lowndes will lean heavily on Jhaj and the veteran core, but he has a feeling that Minhas might also be one to watch.
“He’s a first-year player but he plays with a lot of pace,” Lowndes said of the 5-foot-9 midfielder, one of six Abbotsford natives on the roster. “I tell the players that I am not a coach who plays players by seniority. If you’re a good player, you handle your business and you deserve to play over a fourth-year player, then you will play. I think that might not be the case at some other schools, but it’s refreshing and young player here are excited to know that they can get opportunities.”
And how can this not be a roster bursting with enthusiasm?
There isn’t a single fifth-year player among the 26 listed on the current roster, yet there are 19 players in either their first or second seasons.
The Clan, on the other hand, were this week voted the overwhelming favourites to capture another Great Northwest Athletic Conference title.
They return 17 players and six starters from last season’s 9-2-1 squad, including GNAC Player of the Year Adam Jones, who scored the equalizer Saturday just three minutes after Jhaj.
“As a young team, today was good for us,” said Lowndes. “SFU brought a lot of quality in today and I will be very surprised if they are not playing for a national championship or playing in the Final Four.”
Clan head coach Clint Schneider, whose side opened its season with a 2-0 win Wednesday at UBC, said the match was another opportunity for his team to continue honing its focus in advance of its conference opener Sept. 21 at Seattle Pacific.
“Tommy is a good coach and he really prepares his guys,” said Schneider of Lowndes, whose teams have now drawn with the Clan three straight seasons. “I think this is their fifth preseason game, so they have more minutes under their belts. That certainly helps tactically. They were a little more difficult to break down.”
From the Cascades’ perspective, the 2017 campaign will be a telling one.
How much has a the program grown since Lowndes joined the staff of former head coach Alan Errington in 2013, when the program made the Canada West playoffs for the first of what is now four straight seasons after missing the dance their first seven seasons?
“We’ve made a step in the right direction with continuity,” Lowndes explains. “And as the program has grown, we’ve been able to get stronger players. We’re going to work hard. We’re going to cause teams problems.”
It’s a journey that begins, in earnest, on Friday at UBC, then continues Saturday at Victoria.
The Cascades open the home portion of the conference schedule Sept. 8-9 against UBC Okanagan and Thompson Rivers.
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