BURNABY — It’s Mamadi Camara’s last chance to lead his Simon Fraser Clan to an NCAA Div. 2 soccer championship.
So on Monday, as another outstanding conference season atop Burnaby Mountain gave way to the release of the national championship bracket, it was pretty easy to see the level of investment the Clan’s senior midfielder has made in trying to insure he and his teammates are ready to play at the next level that the win-or-go-home post-season demands.
(Editor’s note — on Wednesday, Mamadi Camara was named the GNAC’s 2018 Player of the Year)
Simon Fraser, ranked No. 1 nationally for the majority of its Great Northwest Athletic Conference season, bounced back nicely from its only league loss last Thursday at Western Washington to blank host Montana State Billings 2-0 on Saturday, compiling a 17-1-0 overall record and an 11-1-0 GNAC mark.
It was enough to give the Clan a well-deserved No. 1 seed in the bracket’s West Region.
SFU will play the host role on Seattle Pacific University’s Interbay Stadium pitch, opening Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s match between No. 4 seeded Fresno Pacific (14-2-1) and No. 5 Cal Poly Pomona (13-5-0).
“I think we’ve learned the last couple of years that these games are really different from our conference games,” explained Camara, who in both 2016 and 2017 was part of Clan teams which were eliminated in the regional portion of the draw by the same team, the Broncos of Cal Poly Pomona.
“They are do-or-die so we have to come in with a different mentality,” Camara continued. “We have to be ready to battle for the entire 90 minutes. But we’ve had so much preparation that I don’t think it’s luck that we’re in the position we’re in.”
Clan men’s soccer has been a leader in the Simon Fraser’s athletic department in terms of national NCAA success since the school became the U.S. giant’s lone foreign school at the start of the decade.
Under current FC Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch, the Clan advanced to back-to-back national D2 semifinals, but lost in 2012 to Saginaw Valley State, and to Carson Newman in 2013.
Longtime assistant Clint Schneider assumed the reigns of the team for the 2015 season, and although SFU missed out on a berth to nationals his first season, they have continued to remain the GNAC’s model program and the team which seems poised for national title-contention each season.
The recently-completed 2018 regular-season, however, seemed to take their dominance to a new level.
Before the GNAC season even began, SFU won six straight non-conference matches, including a 3-0 win over Cal Poly Pomona, and that record does not reflect its non-counting exhibition wins over Canada West Final Four schools Fraser Valley and UBC, the latter one of the favourites to win the U Sports national tournament.
When its conference slate began, SFU went on to win won its first 10 straight matches before falling at Western Washington last week.
“We reacted in a positive way, as positive as you can when lose,” said Schneider. “Again, we talked about controllables. We talked about how it doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you aren’t willing to sacrifice and do all the little things, then talent becomes secondary to work rate, and we were outworked.
“But I have a group of guys who want to go to battle for each other, and when that loss happened, you could see it in their faces,” Schneider added. “They weren’t going to let it happen again.”
DO ONE THING BETTER
The national semifinal losses were heartbreakers for the Clan, as were their last two season-enders to Pomona, 2016’s coming on the sixth round of penalty kicks after a 0-0 regulation.
That match, hosted by SFU at Interbay after a 14-1-3 record had earned the Clan a West Region No. 1 ranking, came in the second round of play after Simon Fraser had earned an opening round bye.
In fact if Cal Poly wins on Thursday, the 2018 pre-match plot lines on Saturday would be a near carbon-copy to 2016, right down to the two teams, the venue, and their respective West Region seeds.
Yet Camara was enthused about the way in which he and his teammates proactively took control after its surprising loss to Western Washington last week. In fact after a players’ meeting Friday, the Clan seem to have found an added level of purpose just when they needed it most.
“It was hard to get up for games after we won (the GNAC regular-season title) two weeks early,” said Camara, who finished third on the team this season with nine goals and 13 assists for 31 points. “But we had a players’ meeting on Friday after the loss.”
If that’s not too unusual, the agenda for that meeting seemed especially well-timed and intended.
Clan players came to the meeting armed with one thing they thought they could do better to give the team a better chance moving into the playoffs.
“It gave a lot of other players a chance to talk and have bold discussion,” said Camara. “It brought us closer together, and when we won Saturday (against Montana State Billings) we saw a different SFU. It was a different vibe.”
FEEL IT, TRUST IT
These 2018 Clan men’s soccer team is amongst the most talented in program history.
And over the course of winning 16 straight, their team and individual numbers reeked of efficiency.
So much so that as the second season begins, SFU ranks third in D2 in goals per game at 3.39, a stat which when combined with its miniscule, fourth-best .389 goals-against averag, makes them perhaps the toughest out in the western half of the continent.
Matteo Polisi, the Coquitlam native, has led the team with 18 goals and 47 points, while Connor Glennon of Vernon sits second with 16 goals and 38 points.
Yet as cold-blooded as their offence has been against rival GNAC defences, there seems to be another layer.
It’s one which has been learned from the heartbreak of its past two West Region ousters.
And their level of preparation was revealed following that players’ meeting last Friday by simply asking Camara what he himself had stood up and vowed to do better for his team over this vital juncture of the campaign.
“I said I could have done a better job to be prepared,” said Camara, who before painting a picture of the events that led to the team’s only loss of the season, admitted that he won’t be hesitating to act on his gut instincts from this point forward.
“Two years ago, the same scenario happened when we went to Western Washington on a Thursday,” he said of a 2016 campaign in which the Vikings, just like in 2018, hosted the Clan in the second-to-last game of the GNAC season.
This season they fell after riding a 16-match win streak into Bellingham. Back in 2016, SFU was riding a 17-match unbeaten streak.
“Then, we went out and we beat Seattle Pacific, I think 4-2,” he remembers of their response to the loss two years ago. “So it was literally the same thing and historians will all tell you that the past is a great indicator of what can happen. I should have used that experience. I should have followed my gut. I just had this gut feeling, that because it was Seniors’ Night there (at WWU last week) that we were going to spend a lot of time standing around before the game started.”
That’s the perfect example of the importance that a senior player is putting on the small, the extra, and the in-the-details moments which comprise true preparation for the biggest games of their lives. And it’s what has you convinced the 2018 Clan have left no stone unturned.
Of course, there are never, ever any guarantees.
“After my first season here, we didn’t qualify (for nationals),” says Camara. “But after the second, we figured out how to win this league. Now, after the (conference) season we had, it would be full-cirlce to win it all, and honestly, I feel we have the team to do it.”
That’s a sentiment delivered straight from Mamadi Camara’s gut.
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