ABBOTSFORD — Gurmaan Jhaj has brought a rare talent to the fore over the course of his university soccer career with the Fraser Valley Cascades.
With that in mind, perhaps it’s only fitting that he winds up the regular season portion of that career by staring rare opportunity square in the face… and not blinking.
“As a person, it’s not daunting because I love the extra motivation to go and achieve,” said Jhaj, after Thursday’s morning training session when the most prolific player in program history was asked about the pressure to perform in what will be UFV’s biggest weekend of the season thus far. “So I am looking forward to the opportunity that we have been given.”
And what a drama-filled opportunity it is.
The fourth-place Cascades (5-4-4) wrap up what has been an up-and-down Canada West Pacific Division campaign this weekend by playing host to the second-place Victoria Vikes (7-5-1) on Friday (8 p.m., MRC Sports Complex) and at the first-place, No. 5-ranked UBC Thunderbirds (9-1-3) on Sunday (2 p.m., Thunderbird Stadium).
While the number of potential scenarios to determine the Pacific’s four playoff-qualifying teams is too massive to note, all Cascades’ fans need to know is that UFV will find safe passage into the postseason if it can pull out a win in either of its two final games.
Chance No. 1?
That comes Friday, at home, amidst the emotion of Seniors’ Night with pre-game festivities to honour Jhaj and fellow fifth-years Brady Weir, Tyler Henderson and Nawaf Binsaleh.
“It’s not often that you can pair those two things together,” added Fraser Valley head coach Tom Lowndes who shared Jhaj’s view of the synergistic soccer mojo being produced this week through the timely intersection of both a potential playoff clincher and a symbolic farewell to four seniors.
With all of that said, emotion and focus will be the keys for the Cascades, who last week, lived up to the must-win mantra, saving their playoff hopes for this coming weekend’s finale by sweeping both ends of a home-and-away with arch-rival Trinity Western after beating the Spartans by identical 3-2 scores.
“Especially after last weekend, with the mental and physical toll it took on us,” re-affirmed Lowndes of the season-saving victories. “We’ve talked about having to re-set and focus, and now we get the chance on Friday to send our seniors off with a bang.”
And when you ask the head coach specifically about Jhaj, there is a deep-seeded pride that comes with watching someone achieve the kinds of personal breakthroughs which far out-strip even the fact that the former Aldergrove Community School grad became the Cascades all-time career goal-scoring leader in its U Sports-era, topping the old record of 20, with two goals in the TWU series, bringing his current total to 22.
“In terms of his journey through university, he had a tough first year,” reminds Lowndes of the fact that Jhaj put himself in some academic jeopardy after his first season with the team, and thus sat out the entire 2015 campaign while getting that more important side of his university experience back on track.
“He took some time to re-evaluate and ever since he’s put in the work in both the classroom and on the field to become the best student-athlete he could be,” Lowndes added of Jhaj, who has not only set himself up nicely for post-university life by preparing for a wide-ranging career in the home construction world, but also comes into this weekend tied with former great Sasa Plavsic for most points (31) in a career. “He’s become a real role model, and the kind of player who in the past couple of years has scored some really big goals for us.”
And if his team-leading five goals this season may seem to pale when placed against the 13 he bagged last season in finishing second overall in the conference, his presence has only grown.
“It’s made me want to be an even better leader this season,” Jhaj says of being named the team’s captain in the preseason, an honour to him which goes well beyond affixing the leader’s band to his left arm prior to each match.
“I want to lead and I want to motivate, and I want to set the best example I can for not only the younger players, but whomever it is that will take over for me after this season. Right now, team morale is great.”
And like any great captain, Jhaj has his focus centred squarely on doing what he can to have his team play its best soccer of the season, first on Friday and then on Sunday.
In a manner of speaking, if that happens, Gurmaan Jhaj will have likely played the best two games of his own career.
And that, for a player nicknamed Gur-Magic, would be a fitting regular-season finale.
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