COQUITLAM — One of the more anonymous moments in last season’s run to the B.C. AAA girls soccer title by Coquitlam’s Centennial Centaurs was the way they were able to survive the sudden-elimination group stage on Day two of the three-day event and find their way to the tournament’s Final Four.
If your memory needs to be jogged, Centennial was tied with Richmond’s R.A. McMath Wildcats after the completion of pool play and thus the two teams needed to go to a special penalty-kick tie-breaker.
The Centaurs won the session 3-2 on a deciding goal by its senior Danae Robillard, but just as essential was the play of the team’s then-14-year-old Grade 9 keeper Kelsey Eckert.
That day, the neophyte keeper denied the Wildcats on their first three kicks, jump-starting a dramatic run in which Eckert would backstop Centennial all the way to its first B.C. title in 19 years.
“I just said to myself that day ‘We are not going to lose this,’”Eckert remembers. “There was so much adrenaline and my heart was racing, but when I made that first save, I saw how all of our faces had just lit up. I gave it everything and the saves just kept coming.”
Today, as the B.C. tourney sits two sleeps away from its Wednesday openers at Cloverdale Athletic Park, it’s important to note not only Eckert’s position in the Centennial team, but how B.C. girls high school soccer, at its top end, has drastically raised its profile over the past few years.
Eckert has not only returned to the Centaurs this season as a young but battle-tested 15-year-old, she has also made keeper her full-time position as a club player with Coquitlam Metro Ford’s U-16 BCSPL squad, a decision she made based solely on the experiences she has had with her high school team.
“I was always interested in being a goalie when I was younger,” Eckert said Monday ahead of training. “Then last season, I heard that Centennial didn’t really have a goalie. I was really nervous because I had heard how good they were, but as soon as I got out there, they accepted me and made me feel welcome.”
To Centaurs’ co-head coach Kevin Comeau, the way Eckert has embraced her new position and the way Centennial players in general have embraced playing in whichever positions best benefit the team, is one of the unique aspects of B.C. high school soccer.
“That is one thing that we as coaches love about our school teams is that a lot of the time, the players get more joy with their high school teams,” explains Comeau, noting that no one ever complains when a positional switch is required to compensate for an injury or simply to make the team better.
“Kelsey had played some centre-mid and some defence, and she had had some training as a keeper, but she never had the confidence to say ‘I want to do this’ until she came to tryouts and won the job with our team based on her play.”
The most interesting dynamic, however, is that while high school soccer is still age-group competition, its breadth is vast enough to create some interesting dynamics and challenges.
“It begins with a bunch of talented people from four different age groups,” begins Centaurs’ goalkeeper coach Veronica Aguiar, “playing positions they are not all comfortable with. They have been able to adjust, however, because they trust in the coaches decisions to put them in places they feel they can play.”
And Eckert couldn’t have asked for a better mentor than Aguiar, herself a former Metro Ford player and Centennial grad who played in goal for the Centaurs from ninth grade through her senior year.
“Having had the same kind of first-hand experience being a Grade 9 on the senior team, I know that there is a lot of pressure but Kelsey just handles it all so well,” Aguiar says. “Over spring break when no one else was training, we got together and worked on some one-on-one things and it was fantastic. She is one of the most coachable kids ever. She works hard, and it all clicks with respect and trust. We’ve got a great dynamic.”
Eckert is the first to admit that facing players up to three years her senior from the time her high school career started last season has been challenging.
“It’s tough because you’re playing with all age groups and so you face harder shots, and more competition,” Eckert states. “But it’s all making me a better player.”
And sharing her Centennial experience with a former Centaurs’ keeper in Aguiar has just made it all the more special.
“(Aguiar) took me under her wing and mentored me and it has been amazing because I’d never had a goalie coach before that,” Eckert says. “She’s made me want to keep playing and everyone has been so welcoming on this team. It’s like a family and actually it really is, because (Aguiar) is my cousin’s cousin.”
Centennial opens group stage action at 9 a.m. Wednesday against Ft. St. John’s North Peace Grizzlies and winds up action for the day against Fraser Valley rival Sardis at 12:30 p.m.
On Thursday, group play ends with a 10:45 a.m. clash with Victoria’s Oak Bay Breakers.
Semifinals will be played at 12:30 and 2:15 p.m. Thursday with the B.C. championship match scheduled for 11:15 a.m. Friday.
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