ABBOTSFORD — You can’t really define a second wind, except to say that although invisible to the naked eye, it brings a presence which is undeniably uplifting.
In a big-picture sense, that’s kind of how Rob Giesbrecht has felt throughout the course of the most demanding and perhaps most rewarding preseason in the history of Fraser Valley Cascades women’s soccer.
And now, with its Canada West opener against the Victoria Vikes scheduled for a week from this Friday in the provincial capital, there is a palpable sense that the Cascades are readying themselves behind that second wind, for a climb back to their most successful run in program history, a three-season span which began in 2014 with a fourth-place finish at U Sports nationals and produced a combined 24-8-8 conference mark.
“There is still so much work to be done, but this year is going to be a year to take a step forward,” said Giesbrecht, whose 10th season at the helm has begun with a milestone preseason achievement.
The Cascades, five games into their exhibition slate and carrying a four-game win streak into Thursday’s home match against Portland’s Concordia Cavaliers (8 p.m., MRC Sports Complex), recorded their first-ever victory over an NCAA Div. 1 foe with a 2-1 win Aug. 11 on the road against the Idaho Vandals.
There were moments last Friday in Bellingham where Rob Giesbrecht must surely have felt that figurative second wind blowing.
The opponents that day were none other than the host Western Washington Vikings, ranked No. 11 nationally in NCAA Div. 2 and whom just two days earlier had been the unanimous choice to finish first in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s preseason coaches poll.
“We relied on our fifth-year captain to score a wonder goal for us in the 30th minute,” Giesbrecht said of Brittney Zacharuk, whose 16-yard blast came off a through ball from fourth-year Simi Lehal and held for a 1-0 UFV win.
“It was an amazing goal, but we had to absorb some pressure and to that end, Andrea (Perkovic) was great in net. And then the key to our defensive prowess was the way our two centre backs, Taylor Nekic and Tavia Jasper, both stepped up and solidified our back four.”
It goes without saying that as her team’s only fifth-year player and its leading scorer, Zacharuk is as indispensable a leader as there is across of the entire U Sports nation.
Yet the emerging story behind the potential 2019 renaissance of the Cascades lies not only in the quality of their large 2017, ’18 and ’19 recruiting classes, but in the way those players have seized the ample opportunities provided to both improve and flourish following heavy graduation numbers, including a combined nine cornerstone players, from the 2015 and ’16 teams.
To that end, Nekic, a rangy third-year defender out of Surrey United who has started on defence since her 2017 freshman campaign, is the perfect example of the fast-tracking path embarked on by so many of these youthful Cascades.
“There is no substitute for game time,” begins Giesbrecht, whose 28-player roster this season includes 22 players in either their first, second or third seasons.
“The game can teach a player far more than any coach can,” he continued, “and players from Taylor’s (2017) and Tavia’s (2018) class have gotten a lot of playing time. It speeds up their development, and so you see a third-year player able to really compete at this level.”
Ask Nekic about her experiences as a Cascade, and the theme of empowerment in unmistakable.
“The encouragement I’ve gotten here from the coaches and the support I’ve gotten from my teammates has just helped me excel personally, and it’s given me an insight into how I can help the first-year players,” the Surrey-Kwantlen Park grad begins.
“I’ve gotten stronger, too,” adds Nekic, who has embraced the physical side of the game through Matt Chapdelaine, the school’s strength and conditioning coach. “In my first year, I wasn’t as confident in the air. Now, I feel more confident to go up and win a ball and make a clearance.”
While the rest of the preseason will be used to decide starting spots at the two outside back positions, the second-year Jasper, a former standout high school basketball player from Langley’s Brookswood Secondary, has paired nicely with Nekic in central defence.
“Taylor is a strong presence in the air, a very good tackler and is fantastic at clearing balls from our box, and that comes with experience,” begins Giesbrecht. “I have always loved the multi-sport kids, and Tavia is such a gamer. She’s strong, she uses her body so well and she knows how to distribute the ball.”
An even younger presence is felt in the midfield.
Bryana Buttar, a diminutive pure freshman from Abbotsford Secondary, might be the most high-profile recruit in program history and she has quickly slotted into a starting position at centre-mid.
“She is a beast on the field, so competitive,” says Giesbrecht, who admits he had to speak with the former Canadian Under-15 and Whitecaps REX player at halftime of her first university game (at Eastern Washington) for self-preservation purposes after he saw the fearless way she had begun to tackle.
Although the Cascades suffered their lone loss of the season in that game, going down 6-2 after falling behind 3-0 by the ninth minute, Buttar scored her team’s first goal of the season in the 70th.
Teamming up with her in the middle of the park is 5-foot-6 Coquitlam Metro Ford product Halle McCambley, a pure freshman from Maple Ridge’s Thomas Haney Secondary.
“She is another of the freshman who has come in and exceeded expectations,” said Giesbrecht of McCambley. “She has shown great composure and balance, and she’s been really smart with the ball alongside Bryana.”
And that’s just a part of the many evolving stories centred around the team’s young core.
Incoming Class of 2017 players like defender Kailyn Halvorson (Vernon), midfielder Tripat Sandhu (Abbotsford-Dasmesh Punjabi) and keeper Joven Sandhu (Surrey-Sullivan Heights); 2018 players like forward Jashan Sandhar (North Delta); and 2019 players like defender Jenna Mele are among the many who could enjoy breakout seasons.
“…SO MUCH MORE POTENTIAL TO SHOW”
Giesbrecht has been around long enough to know that it’s the conference schedule that counts, and that as encouraging as the team’s preseason play has been, carrying it over to Canada West play is what it’s all about, especially when you face UBC, Trinity Western and Victoria in home-and-away matches every season.
Yet he’s seen signs of resiliency which have him encouraged about the journey, including the way his team rallied after its nightmarish start at Eastern Washington, and followed it with a win at Idaho.
The Cascades later topped NAIA Northwest College 2-1, before registering back-to-back shutouts against GNAC teams Western Washington last Friday, and then locally at Simon Fraser (2-0) on Monday.
“When you play the Div. 2 teams, they have a later starting date, so you don’t want to read too much into those,” Giesbrecht said of the friendlies. “But I was encouraged. I think that the GNAC is very similar to the Canada West in that the top teams are very equal.”
UFV was set to close out its preseason by facing two more GNAC teams, beginning with Concordia in Abbotsford on Thursday, and concluding Saturday (7 p.m.) at Seattle Pacific. The Cascades will play at UBC on Sept. 7 to close out its first Canada West weekend, then return to Abbotsford for its home-opening weekend Sept 13 against Manitoba and Sept. 14 against Winnipeg. Both contests at MRC Sports Complex begin at 5:30 p.m.
Nekic knows there is a ton of work ahead, but she won’t lower the bar as far as what she thinks she and her teammates are capable of accomplishing this season.
“One of our goals is to make nationals and to win,”she says. “I think we have a great team with so much more potential to show.”
Adds Giesbrecht: “We know there are better days ahead for us, and that we will challenge for a Canada West title. We also know how much hard work is ahead, but what I like most about this team is that we want success now.”
It’s why that second wind has begun to blow.
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