BURNABY — There were only a handful of other places within the NCAA world from which Annie Hamel could have travelled further just to arrive at her posting as the new head coach of Simon Fraser Clan women’s soccer back in the spring of 2014.
And if you equated the length of that 3,196 mile journey — from Saint Leo University just outside of Tampa, Fla. — to cavernous size of the challenge which awaited her atop Burnaby Mountain, you’d be excused for wondering if she truly knew what she was getting herself into.
After all, what could be tougher than trying to turn the fortunes of a once-proud Clan program that had fallen on such hard times that it had gone a combined 2-36-4 in its three most-recent seasons before her arrival?
When the answer came Tuesday, with the members of her first full Simon Fraser recruiting class helping wave the flag, the answer was clear.
Not only had Hamel been named the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s Coach of the Year, her senior midfielder Jenna-lee Baxter had been chosen the conference’s Player of the Year, and a total of seven Clan players had found spots on various GNAC all-star teams.
All of this after producing the best regular-season winning percentage in the program’s NCAA history, an 8-3-1 mark which propels the team into Thursday’s 4 p.m. GNAC championship semifinal in Portland against No. 1-seeded Western Washington.
“Honestly, when I became the head coach it gave me a chance to come home (to Canada),” explained Hamel, a Quebec native whose 10-year NCAA resume had most recently included a successful five-year stint as the lead assistant at Saint Leo, a fellow Div. 2 school located just outside of Tampa-St. Petersburg.
“But I didn’t look at (SFU’s) record,” she continued. “At that point, I just believed in myself. In my head, I knew I could build something, and although everyone told me it would take a full four-year cycle, I thought I could do it quicker.”
ANSWERING A SPECIAL CALLING
Hamel’s first season at the helm of Clan soccer, in 2014, was a tough 2-12-0 campaign filled with teaching moments.
Hired just five months before, her recruiting options for that season were limited, and thus she trained her eyes on the following 2015 season, landing in what was her true first recruiting class, a core of players who have since become the backbone of a renaissance.
Yet Hamel makes no bones about the fact that when she got here, no one had a clue who she was.
The key, it appears in hindsight, was the way in which she was able to communicate her belief to the players who would sign on as freshman for the 2015 campaign.
“The people that came here, when I talked about my vision, they still had to sit in front of me and buy into it without really knowing me,” begins Hamel of a sextet of players which include Samantha Donald, Katelyn Erhardsen, sisters Allyson and Christina Dickson, Tanis Cuthbert and Carli Grosso.
It was during that 2015 campaign, one which not only ended with a break-out 5-6-1 record but saw SFU finish one spot shy of a berth in the GNAC championship tournament, that a player Hamel considers the seventh member of the 2015 senior class, played her freshman season with the Pac 12’s Oregon State Beavers.
“I knew so many of the (SFU) girls,” says Baxter, the Surrey-Fraser Heights grad who this past season tallied 32 points (11 goals, 10 assists) to lead the GNAC in scoring en route to her POY honours. “I’d ask them how their year was going. What I heard back was how fun it was to play there, how great Annie was, and how they had all fallen in love with environment around the game.”
Baxter decided to transfer, and in concert with all the good things she had heard, the addition of her dynamic package of skills was enough for the Clan accomplish the toughest task in all of team sports.
That, of course, is turning a losing culture into a winning one.
“Jenna has always had the potential, but she needed a way to find herself, to believe in herself,” Hamel explained after Tuesday’s training.
Most specifically, Hamel knew that Baxter, who led all of NCAA Div. 2 in assists per game last season at 0.81, was capable of producing an even broader resume.
“Over the off-season we talked about her becoming more dynamic and going forward, and those 11 goals and 10 assists, those are ridiculous numbers,” chuckled Hamel. “I think the thing I am most proud of is that she was willing to be pushed out of her comfort zone to a position like outside wing. She would tell me that it didn’t feel good, but I explained to her that there were times we needed her there.”
Like last Thursday when Baxter bagged three goals and added a helper in the Clan’s 5-0 win at Montana State Billings.
“She did that as a winger and in 2016, I’m not sure she would have been able to do that for us,” concluded Hamel. “For her, it has been an amazing final act.”
Yet ask Baxter and she’ll tell you that it’s the team’s family environment which has put her in a place to find success.
“All of this has shown, I think, that I can’t be successful without the rest of this team,” Baxter begins. “Coach Annie has given us this great environment to grow together and the biggest reason we’ve been able to be successful is that we care about each other.”
And as masterfully as the Clan’s roster has slotted together over Hamel’s last four recruiting classes, that first big one in advance of the 2015 season has been pivotal.
Take midfielder Samantha Donald as an example.
The senior was not among the seven Clan players to receive all-conference honours on Tuesday, yet Hamel can’t envision any version of team success without her.
“She is an anchor for us, the pulse, the heartbeat of the team,” Hamel says. “When I put my roster down on paper, I put her name down first.”
Then there’s Erhardsen, noted by the coach for her compassionate nature, who in her senior year wound up tied with Baxter for the GNAC lead in assists with 10.
And although she is not a member of that senior class, Emma Pringle has continued to produce as a dynamic goal-scoring force, the junior from North Vancouver’s Windsor Secondary finishing in a tie with Baxter for goals with 11, and finishing second in the conference scoring race with 24 points.
“Seven kids got recognized today, but the ones who didn’t also did amazing things,” Hamel said.
Annie Hamel’s journey north to Burnaby Mountain came with both a vision and a belief.
It also came with the idea of turning the simple act of taping a wrist into the team’s most inspiring tradition.
Take a look at any photo of a Clan women’s soccer player these days and you’ll notice the tape on their left wrists.
“Before the game, we write things on that tape that will motivate us, that are especially meaningful for us,” says Baxter. “If someone is injured, we might write their name to know they are with us. But most of us just write ‘The Team.’”
Says Hamel: “It’s something I brought from Saint Leo and it’s become our tradition. “It’s good for the kids to ask themselves ‘Why do I play?’ If you have that extra layer of motivation, it’s not so easy to quit.”
It’s just another of those in-the-details touches which help define their big picture even more clearly.
Still, all these years later, Hamel can’t quite get over how quickly things came together as she put together that pivotal 2015 recruiting class.
“I think everyone in the (soccer) community was waiting for SFU to have a change,” begins Hamel. “So I got a lot people reaching out to me, quality players that approached me first. I think I got lucky, and sometimes it’s just dumb luck.”
Of course it runs much deeper than Hamel’s humble over-simplification.
The renaissance of Simon Fraser Clan women’s soccer happened in the same kind of organic ways which have characterized sport’s best re-births.
It happened because a new coach, someone still a stranger, believed in herself enough to come 3,000 miles north and sell a dream to a group of talented student-athletes.
She asked them to take a seat next to her, to join her and take the chance that a near-winless soccer program had the will to become something so much more.
“And that is why I love them so much,” Annie Hamel says. “They came here and they bought in when I had nothing to offer but a vision.”
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