LANGLEY — Win five national titles over a span of 10 years, like the Trinity Western Spartans’ women’s soccer program did from 2004-13, and you’re not only able to recruit great players into the team, you’re able to create some of the most competitive positional battles imaginable.
On Friday, the defending Canada West champions and nationally-No. 4-ranked Spartans begin defence of their crown with a two-match opening weekend of the highest magnitude.
Just as they finished the conference championship’s Final Four last season, with wins over both the UBC Thunderbirds and the Victoria Vikes, the Spartans will host the same two teams Friday (Victoria, 5 p.m.) and Saturday (UBC, 5 p.m.) at cozy Chase Office Field.
And they will do so with a roster from which head coach Graham Roxburgh has the luxury of potentially selecting 10 of the 11 starters who lined up in last season’s U Sport national bronze medal final.
As Roxburgh enters his 20th season at the helm of Spartans’ women’s soccer, it’s like a familiar song that remains the same.
Yet there is significant change at the very back-end of the Spartans’ schematic.
It’s the story of Friday’s 11th starter, one which represents not only a feel-good way to start a 2018 campaign filled with expectation, but as the perfect illustration of how TWU’s extended run of national excellence has re-defined its position of starting women’s goalkeeper as one of the toughest jobs to hold across all of Canadian university sports.
SYDOR HOUSE RULES
Ask Rachel Sydor what it’s been like to work and wait through four seasons as a back-up keeper on one of the best teams in the land, before finally ascending to the starter’s role this season, and she begins by taking a deep breath.
“I grew up in this, and going through all of this had made me so much more mature,” explained Sydor, who has appeared in parts of just five conference matches over said four-season span beginning with her arrival from Tsawwassen’s South Delta Secondary back in the fall of 2014.
“Definitely, you feel a hunger,” she continues. “And when you realize that you are getting your chance to play, every practice and every game just seems to matter that much more.”
Take back-to-back seasons from UBC transfer Aly Williamson from 2015-16, then book-end them with Calgary native Christina Oliverio’s two starting seasons in 2014 and 2017, you’re left with nothing more than spot duty for Sydor, who nonetheless says she never gave up hope that one day she would top the team’s depth chart.
“I never ever thought that I wanted to stop playing but I knew I had to bide my time,” says Sydor. “I got to train with two other very good keepers. It created a huge rivalry among the three of us, and we pushed each other insanely. It was never easy, three of us wanting one spot. But when it came to game day we all believed that whomever was chosen was the best choice to play.”
No one would ever pretend that such a process was easy, yet Sydor was able to grow over that period, and Roxburgh sees a student-athlete now ready to embrace her role on what every expert feels is a U Sports national title-contending side.
“She has really matured in life,” Roxburgh says of Sydor, who took nothing for granted coming into camp. “Rachel was recruited heavily and touted as a top keeper, but no one would have predicted that Aly Williamson would have transferred to us. But now, Rachel’s paid her dues in terms of maturing and becoming very focused.”
DUES-PAYING DAYS ARE DONE
As Sydor looks up the field at her teammates this weekend, she will see a team filled with skill and chemistry.
Roxburgh, entering his 20th campaign at the helm, brought in another blue-chip rookie class this season, so of course, nothing is guaranteed to any of the team’s 10 returning starters.
Yet if form holds, expect that competition for playing time to remain as intense as ever.
Last season, the majority of the Spartans’ Canada West season was highlighted by a string of 10 straight games in which they did not allow a goal.
TWU won nine straight games during which its outscored the opposition 34-0, then added a 10th straight clean sheet with a 0-0 tie against Victoria.
All four members of that back line — fourth-year Brooklyn Tidder, third years Kristen Sakaki and Elizabeth Hicks, and second-year Aliya Coy — will offer their able assistance in front of Sydor.
In the midfield, fifth-year seniors Kathleen Chin and Amy Gartke along with dynamic fourth-year Jenaya Robertson are the leading lights, with heralded freshman Sierra Halldorson impossible to miss in the preseason.
Up front, star senior forward Seina Kashima is rounding into form coming off an injury, and she she will partner largely with fourth-year standout Rachel Hutchinson.
“Obviously, when the back four goes 10 games without allowing a goal there is familiarity,” begins Roxburgh, using the defence as an example but speaking to the rare situation of having every starter returning with the exception of keeper.
“There is good chemistry back and it’s all a year older but the challenge there is the hunger, to make sure everyone understands that it was incredibly hard work that got us that far,” adds Roxburgh of the Spartans who last season beat Manitoba 4-0 in the opening round of the nationals, but followed with a disappointing 5-0 loss to Montreal in the semi-finals. “Everyone is back but there’s a lot of rookies and no one is guaranteed a starting spot, so we are looking at it like it’s a brand-new team.”
Sydor can relate to that theme, because this is the brand-new opportunity she hung in so long to grab.
Back in the day, back in her Grade 11 and 12 years at South Delta, she would find herself heading off to UBC to watch her older sister Nicole play for the Thunderbirds.
“I went there to watch my sister, but I also really looked up to Ally and I went there to watch her play, too,” says Sydor of Williamson. “Then, when I heard she was coming (to Trinity Western) I thought I might not see the field for a few years. It was a hard pill to swallow when you realize how much time you might spend on the bench. It was hard but I put a positive spin on it, and I knew what a privilege it was to play at Trinity Western.”
Sydor, 22, has grand plans beyond this season.
Set to graduate with a degree in business administration with a specialization in marketing, she is hopeful of serving an internship with a European company next year.
After that, she says she may follow her dad into the real estate world.
But before any of that happens, there is the small matter of the season of her life awaiting.
“It’s different because I’m used to hyping the team up and being a hard worker in training,” she begins. “Now I am excited to battle with the girls on the field, when it really matters.”
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