LANGLEY — So what’s the commonality that best defines the Trinity Western Spartans’ voluminous streak of 16 straight appearances and counting in the Canada West women’s soccer Final Four championships?
As in any kind of anatomical analysis, figurative as this one may be, the place to start is at the heart, or in the case of a program which turns 20 this season and already has five national titles to its credit, the heart of the park.
It’s the engine room where such dynamic talents as Angela Trauter (2001-04), Natalie Boyd (2009-13), Vanessa Kovacs (2011-15) and of course, reigning U Sports women’s soccer Player of the Year Jenaya Robertson (2015-19) have demonstrated a level of generalship, the likes of which have seemingly kept the Spartans in the national title hunt each every season.
All of which brings us to the fall of 2020, where a cancelled Canada West soccer campaign finds the TWU program in a most unique position.
Poll coaches across the nation and you’re not going to find a single one whose current narrative leads off with talk of silver linings, yet in the tradition of trying to make the most of a tough situation, a concentrated few months of training and potential cohort exhibition matches can be a beneficial environment for what is an atypically untested core of Spartans’ midfielders.
CURRICULUM VITAE: YOUNG
While the likes of Robertson, defender Brooklyn Tidder and forward Rachel Hutchinson have graduated from last season’s 16-3-2 squad, the Spartans are a veteran group along the back with Liz Hicks and U Sports’ first-team All-Canadian Kristen Sakaki each coming to camp this season with four prior seasons of prime time play under their respective belts.
Yet the midfield is another story.
Within what could be a main rotation of perhaps seven players in 2020, rising third-year Winnipeg native Sierra Halldorson’s 1,281 minutes played from a season ago might be, depending on the group’s composition, more than the combined total minutes of the next six players.
Yet that’s no indictment of the talent pool at midfield.
Instead, after a season of injuries to youthful standouts (Maddie Melnychuk and Charity Field) and redshirt transfers (Anna Dunn) now in the rearview mirror, veteran head coach Graham Roxburgh is going to get the chance to watch his midfield forge its own unique identity.
“We’ve talked about the disappointment of Maddie and Charity getting hurt last season,” begins Roxburgh, who has coached the Spartans since 1999. “They weren’t guaranteed to start, but they were going to be core players. It robbed them of valuable experience and it robbed our team of the kind of depth we could have used on a national championship run.
“But I would say that this season is a great opportunity for them to gain the attributes of what it takes to be a midfielder for us,” he added of Melnychuk (Langley-Brookswood), who played in seven games before back and hamstring issues sidelined her, and Field (Richmond Christian) who suffered a knee injury during the team’s preseason tour of England.
Also on the scene are Mila Van der Veen (Parkland County, Alta.) and Grace van den brink (Chilliwack-Unity Christian), a pair of rising second-year players, as well as touted Okotoks (Alta.) rookie Olivia Kranjcec. Yet of that quintet, only Melnychuk, van den brink and Van Der Veen saw minutes last season.
And that’s why Edmonton native and transfer Dunn, who played three seasons with the rival Alberta Pandas, will be a vital member of the group.
“It is unique to be able to add a veteran transfer to a young group,” admits Roxburgh who envisions Dunn being able to excel wide, or as a central figure within either the midfield or forward groups. “She brings a maturity, compete level and intelligence that is going to make everyone in our core better.”
FINGERS CROSSED FOR COHORT PLAY
Earlier this week, after months of uncertainty, followed by a return to the practice field, the Spartans enjoyed what in every other season wouldn’t be considered a benchmark moment.
Yet based on the pandemic and the care which has been taken to best insure player safety, it was a chance to reaffirm what is so great about the fall U Sports season.
“We played our first 11 v. 11 after advancing to the next stage of the ViaSport regulations,” said Roxburgh. “It was pretty fun. I think they were all just excited to compete.
“Yesterday (Monday) was the first day we were allowed to play intra-squad scrimmages in the next phase,” added Roxburgh. “So it was great to finish with a refreshing 30-minute scrimmage.”
With all of that said, the head coach added that fingers are collectively crossed for the prospect of actual matches in the not-too-distant future.
“We have explored the idea of putting some of our group in the women’s metro soccer league,” Roxburgh said. “I think they are still at a stage where they are figuring out their return to play. We have also talked with our local rivals at UBC and Fraser Valley about creating a small cohort of four teams. So those two things are on the table. I don’t think that it’s too far away, providing that COVID goes in right direction, teams are compliant and athletic departments are comfortable. I don’t think we’re that far away from having some outside competition taking place.”
Last season, the Spartans had their championship aspirations snuffed in the Canada West semifinals by UBC, and the traditional rivals are the two most successful programs in U Sports women’s soccer history with the defending champion ‘Birds having won seven national titles, and the Spartans five.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Bring up the name of Angela Trauter with Graham Roxburgh, and it’s an invitation to begin a discussion of the birth of the Spartans athletic program as a national title-contending entity at the U Sports’ level.
“Traut could have walked on to any of these teams,” Roxburgh says of the captain of the 2004 team — the school’s first CIS/U Sports national championship winner in any sport — and the presence she would have brought to any of TWU’s subsequent title winners. “She was special, she helped build the program, and then she turned over the reigns to players like Nat and Tessa (Meyer) and Rebecca (Ferguson) and (Melissa) Mobilio.”
The list of the program’s top full-time midfielders seems endless: Dana Dumerton, Ali Oliverio, Jenna Di Nunzio and Amy Gartke are some of the others. And there are a number of others for which midfield was more of a part-time home.
The lineage is now so long, that hand-in-hand with TWU’s success as a team, several of the aforementioned players hold heavily-decorated resumes.
Meyer (2008-12) and Boyd (2009-13), for example, each won three national titles, and Kovacs and Oliverio each won two while appearing in four straight national championship finals (2012, ’13, ’14 and ’15).
For Roxburgh, that level of history and tradition does not exist in a vacuum.
Instead, it is a part of the team’s everyday culture.
“It’s for sure exciting… the joy of moulding a new group of players to be as successful as previous groups of players have been,” he says. “Players like Vanessa and Ali graduated and passed the torch to a player like Jenaya, and she wasn’t just a national Player of the Year. She was a captain for three years and one of the best servants our program has ever had.
“So now, it’s turned over to a player like Sierra to be a big-time player and a catalyst for our midfield,” Roxburgh adds of Halldorson. “I think we’re going to be in good hands.”
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