LANGLEY — Domenic Poletto was at a career crossroads late this past summer, but getting a chance to see the future of Spartans’ men’s soccer has him counting the days until his official return.
Trinity Western’s leading point-getter a season ago as a standout central midfielder, Poletto had been a driving force in the resurgence of Spartans’ men’s soccer, not only helping lead them back to the U Sports championship tournament last season for the first time since 2009, but to within a game of a berth in the national final.
And coming off the high of that moment, the fourth-year Calgary native could hardly wait to lace up his boots for what he was confident could be a fitting fifth-year farewell to the university portion of his soccer career .
Not too soon after, however, adversity reared it ugly head.
Playing for Calgary Foothills FC last spring, in a match against Vancouver’s TSS Rovers at Swangard Stadium, Poletto suffered a torn ACL.
Surgery followed in June, and with a return date for full contact not set until March of 2020, he was still hobbled when he arrived to observe training camp a couple of months ago, all the while openly wondering if he had played his last game for the Spartans.
But all of that changed the moment he saw the presence which TWU’s massive class of incoming freshmen carried onto the pitch at Chase Office Field.
“In those first couple of weeks of camp, I still hadn’t made my decision to come back,” says Poletto, who along with fellow fifth-year, forward Aidan Moore, had each gone down over the off-season with ACL injuries. “But after the preseason, seeing how much (the freshmen) had developed, I couldn’t not come back. I have one more year left, and selfishly, the encouragement they have given me for next year, showing me how much potential we have, it has me excited. I am so proud of these rookies.”
“…IN THE END, IT’S OUR CULTURE”
Trinity Western isn’t among this week’s Top 10 in the latest U Sports’ national rankings released Tuesday.
In fact in what is something of a rarity, UBC at No. 5 is the only Canada West school on the sheet.
Yet the Spartans (6-4), winners of five of their last six and sitting in second place behind UBC (6-2-1) in the CW’s Pacific Division, have begun to see forward momentum building.
Those rookies Poletto raved about are finding their stride, building chemistry within a young squad which features just six combined fourth- and fifth-year players, led at the senior end by returning stalwarts like defender Vaggeli Boucas and forward Cody Fransen, the latter this week’s freshly-minted U Sports Male Player of the Week.
In fact if you want to study just how big an impact the rookies have had (TWU lists 17 freshmen, 11 of whom are not taking redshirt seasons in 2019), study the minutes-played column of its roster heading into this weekend’s two-game homestand (Friday, Saturday, Chase Office Field, 7:15 p.m. both nights) against Prince George’s UNBC Timberwolves (4-5-2).
Other than keeper Sebastian Colyn, who has played every minute of TWU’s 10 conference matches, rookies have logged three of the top five minutes-played totals on the team.
Jake Ruby, one of the top recruits in program history, who comes to the Langley campus via the Whitecaps Residency Program, is a first-year defender who sits at the very top of that chart (890 minues), averaging 89 minutes a contest over 10 games.
As well, two midfielders occupy spots Nos. 4-5 in Tristan Torresan (772 minutes over 10 games, 77.2 mpg) and Joey Seo (739 minutes over nine games, 82.1 mpg) respectively.
Ask Trinity Western head coach Mike Shearon how the freshman core have been able to play such a huge role in 2019, and his answer hits on a confluence of factors, all of which point towards the program’s recent success on the national stage.
“I think there are a lot of variables, but the first one is that (the rookies) are quality players,” begins Shearon, noting that Ruby, a versatile outside back who can easily move into an attacking role, was afforded some preseason opportunities in his past with the Whitecaps’ first team.
“The second is our playing philosophy, what we want to do on the field, and it has shown to be very adaptable in getting the best out of our players.
“And then in the end, it’s our culture,” he concludes. “We’ve tried to build a culture of encouragement and inclusiveness but with accountability, and so when you need to perform for your fellow brothers, you do. It’s a credit to the guys who have gone before them that they have helped create what we have with the current generation of players.”
TWU ENTERS A MEN’S SOCCER RENAISSANCE
What did Poletto see when he studied the core of incoming rookies back in the preseason days of August?
“With me playing in the midfield, I looked there first, and I could tell how mature and technically sound they were,” he remembers. “You could see it right from the first week.”
Torresan, a Vancouver-Notre Dame grad, is himself a former Whitecaps Residency player who tore his ACL and spent the past two seasons with Surrey United.
His skills, along with those of North Vancouver native Ruby were eye-opening enough over their respective youth careers that Shearon knew both had the skill to contest for starting roles very early on.
Seo, a late signee out of the Highlanders academy in Victoria, has joined the pair in terms of jumping into the starting ranks. When fourth-year Caleb Johnson went down for a short spell which extended into the first week of the conference campaign, Seo was able to show his skills, and has not slowed down since.
Together, the freshmen trio have started 28 of their 29 combined Canada West matches heading into Friday.
“A group of us seniors, we met in the preseason to talk about our team culture and what it would look like because we really wanted to create an environment where (the freshmen) would be comfortable,” Poletto says. “Then I talked with (Shearon) and he told me how this year was going to be about a big shift for me. I was injured and so he told me I was going to have to be a leader to the young guys from off the field.”
As talented as the freshmen group is, there is always an adjustment period, and Poletto takes pride in the fact that during a season in which the program has brought in so many new players, he has been able to impart some sideline wisdom.
“I can say this for me, and for Vaggeli and Cody, too, that the first year in U Sports, there is a huge learning curve,” Poletto says of what every first-year player experiences. “It’s more physical and it’s more fast-paced. Whomever is willing to work the hardest is going to win and our young guys have learned that. I think it’s why we’ve been able to do so well. They understand that it’s not just about their technical skill. You also have to grind for 90 minutes.”
The Spartans may have lost the services of two valuable fifth-year seniors during the off-season, yet when one of them speaks for the other in conveying such a convincing message of team over individual, it’s not hard to see the silver lining, and the golden ambition which has come with the renaissance of TWU men’s soccer.
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