LANGLEY — It may be the simplest game of Xs and Os ever invented, yet the ability to consistently win in the ancient discipline of tic-tac-toe doesn’t come without a complex level of sureness and clarity, which in intangible terms, might be best described as having an instant presence.
Study the impact Joel Waterman has begun to have in very similar ways on the soccer pitch, and it’s folly to think that the fifth-year holding midfielder with Langley’s Trinity Western University doesn’t bring his own kind of instant presence for the U Sports’ No. 8-ranked Spartans, who are set to open the home portion of their Canada West conference slate Friday (7:15 p.m.) against the Victoria Vikes at Chase Office Field.
In fact, if you take the tic-tac-toe portion of Waterman’s game at its most literal, and watch the way he returned last season from a serious high-ankle sprain to lead TWU to a road victory over the nation’s No. 1-ranked Alberta Golden Bears, you see what we mean.
Waterman, in fact, had missed the entire first half of the conference schedule a season ago while nursing his left ankle back to health, and over that stretch, TWU was a talented team treading water at 3-2-3, desperately searching for the kind of offensive finish that would best define its identity.
Upon Waterman’s return, the team’s entire demeanour changed, despite the fact he was not yet fully match-fit after his extended absence.
“It was palpable and there was no doubt about it,” admits TWU’s third-year head coach Mike Shearon of the Aldergrove native’s return to the line-up, one which built such a sense of forward momentum that the Spartans’ came within a double-overtime decision of finding their way back to the U Sport national championship tournament last November.
“To come back and put his stamp on the team in his first week back?” said Shearon. “It gave the guys so much confidence. That’s what he gave to all of our other players.”
The splits were dead simple and they spoke volumes.
TWU was 3-2-3 in its first eight games without Waterman, yet with him back in the fold over the final eight games, the Spartans went 5-2-1 to finish second in the conference’s Pacific Division.
For his part, Waterman played like one of the nation’s elite, scoring five times over those final eight regular season games, providing a momentum which manifested itself in Trinity Western’s run all the way to a berth in the Canada West Final Four’s championship game.
Once there, they had built up a 2-0 lead into the 69th minute against powerhouse UBC, which was playing at home on its own Thunderbird Stadium pitch.
Yet even with all of the Xs and Os seemingly stacked in their favour, and a long-waited return to the national tournament seemingly well within reach, TWU wound up losing 3-2 in double overtime.
So, gutted but determined to rise again, the plotline and the goals for 2018 are seemingly already set in stone.
“Even three weeks afterwards, we were still hurting,” admits Waterman, whose team will face No. 7 UBC on Sunday (2 p.m.), right back on the same Thunderbird Stadium turf. “For me, being as competitive as I am, it took a while, not physically, but mentally and emotionally. But we’ve moved on and we’ve come together even more.”
HE MAKES ALL THE PIECES FIT
Joel Waterman just needed one trip to the TWU campus to decide that the Spartans were the team he wanted to play his university soccer for.
The Aldergrove Community School grad started to get the recruiting pitch during his 10th grade year, and he signed with the Spartans and then-head coach Pat Rohla in the summer before his senior year of high school.
And while there were plenty of moments in which he was placed outside of his comfort zone in terms of playing position, the 6-foot-1, 165-pounder has come to look back on it in all in very fond ways, especially as it has pertained to his ability to become the ultimate teammate.
“Joel has always been so good over his five-year career at fitting in where we’ve needed him, and he was more than willing to do that, probably to his detriment in some ways because people didn’t see him as the player that he really was,” explains Shearon, who upon taking the reigns of the program in 2016, remembers asking him to play a more unheralded role both off the ball and defensively as part of a midfield that initially included both Elijah Adekugbe and Eli Gindo, now both no longer on the roster.
“But last year, we needed goals and we needed an extra push,” said Shearon. “And Joel was that guy. This is 100 per cent who he is.”
In hindsight, his ankle injury, suffered during the non-conference season against Seattle Pacific, turned out to be a turning point, not only for the season, but in a broader sense for the program moving forward.
“It was a growing-up time for a lot of guys,” remembers Shearon. “We had lost Elijah to a torn Achilles the season before and he wasn’t coming back, so to then lose Joel was huge.”
Yet what wound up happening was in many ways, the start of the program’s renaissance.
“Dom Poletto had to grow up,” the coach says of his current fourth-year forward. “Then, to have Leighton Johnson have the season he had (third in CW points), same for Cody Fransen, and then Eli having to do a lot of different things, it was a real catapult for us. We got our best player back, a lot of other guys had grown up, and Joel knew he only had a half-season, and he wanted to make the most of the short time he was back.”
WHAT DO YOU KNOW? IT’S TIC-TAC-TOE
Summer is especially important for those U Sports men’s soccer players looking to parlay their university careers into professional opportunities upon graduation.
Waterman came to TWU as a human kinetics major, switched to business, and is now set to graduate in media communications.
Yet the one thing which has remained a constant for him, is his desire to play for pay following his days in Langley.
And thus, getting a chance to suit up for and win a PDL championship for Calgary’s Foothills FC, was one of the most incredible experiences of his life.
“It was a blessing to win,” he said of his team’s 4-2 title-tilt victory over host Reading, PA, capping a run to first place in a continent-wide circuit consisting of 74 teams. “But if I’m being honest, I thought a lot about Trinity, too, over the summer,” added Waterman whose chameleon-like versatility was put to the test again as he suited up as a central defender. “It was going to be my fifth-and-final year coming up. How am I going to lead these guys? How am I going to make them better?”
Huge tests at home to Victoria and at UBC, over the next three days, will tell so much about where the Spartans, who opened last week with a 1-1 draw at UBC Okanagan, truly sit in the grand scheme of the conference.
Yet it seems certain that Joel Waterman, after so many seasons of learning and dues paying, is finally ready to be a leading man when his team needs him most.
Two seasons ago, the Spartans finished third at the Canada West championships.
Last season, they settled for heart-breaking silver.
“If it is supposed to go the way it’s supposed to go,” Waterman says with all the simplistic depth of Yogi Berra, “then hopefully we’ll be No. 1. Losing the way we did last year is what drives us. We don’t want that feeling again.”
The road to redemption has just begun, and it’s paved with a lot of Xs and Os. Yet in those kinds of moments that ultimately define a season, the ones which come with nothing more than the duration of a quick games of tic-tac-toe, there might not be a guy more ready to make his mark than Joel Waterman.
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