BURNABY MOUNTAIN — Ask Annie Hamel what it’s been like pushing the re-start button on the B.C. women’s collegiate soccer program perhaps most limited since the pandemic’s arrival some 18 months ago, and the Simon Fraser head coach relates a moment early in the team’s preseason.
“We wrote on the white board for the coaches ‘PATIENCE’,” Hamel recounted last week, as part of the post-game following her team’s narrow 1-0 loss to the visiting UBC Thunderbirds, a result which capped the team’s official preseason at 0-3-1 and sets the stage for Thursday’s GNAC opener at home against arch-rival Western Washington (5 p.m., SFU Stadium at Terry Fox Field).
“It is coming… the girls have been out for two years,” continued Hamel of the efforts which have gone into re-shaping a roster which, before this preseason, had not played a match since Nov. 9, 2019.
“I have to be patient, the players have to be patient,” she continued. “Everyone else in the community had been playing, but we had not. The NCAA rules did not allow it. So we knew it would be slow. We knew it would be a grind. Tonight, we didn’t get the result, but we’re trending upwards. We’re trending in the right direction.”
Such was clearly the case in its crosstown rivalry clash with a deeply-talented and veteran-laden UBC side, one preparing to defend its 2019 U SPORTS national title status this season.
While the Thunderbirds had a decided numerical edge in many key statistical categories, there was no disguising how tough a team Simon Fraser was to play against, especially as the game progressed, and it’s those positives which have carried forward into the dawn of the team’s new GNAC campaign.
For Simon Fraser co-captain Kayla Goncalves, hope springs eternal because, as she explains, growth within the roster seems acutely visible on a day-to-day basis.
“Our team has come together so much in just the last two weeks,” the 5-foot-4 defender from Vaughan, Ont., says. “Personally, I have never seen a team play so well with such young players. All we need is the finishing touch… that one goal, and then it will all be unlocked.”
That’s Goncalves speaking to what are perhaps the two most telling keys to SFU’s 2021 campaign.
The first is their youth.
Goncalves, a criminology major, is listed as a junior but is set to graduate this academic year, and will not return to the team next season.
She is one of just seven so-called seasoned veterans (five juniors and two seniors) on the team, yet even though that septet won’t have played a meaningful match in 685 days come Thursday’s opener (while the rest of the GNAC enjoyed spring soccer seasons in 2020 south of the line), there is also the not-so-tiny matter of the roster’s 17 freshmen and sophomores, many of whom have virtually no collegiate experience, but some of whom are already logging major preseason minutes
The second is the one element which has been missing throughout an official preseason in which the team gave itself a chance to win with solid overall defensive play: Scoring goals.
Goncalves, however, points to the spirit with which the group brings and says that the way her team finished up against UBC continues to filter through the squad as their date with the Vikings approaches.
“I think that it is shining in the sense that it gives us something to work towards,” she explained. “We wanted to beat UBC so much that nobody even thought about the body aspect. The physical aspect of being tired? Completely out the window. Mentally, we were so focussed on beating UBC that no one even thought about us running out of gas.”
Athletic programs will, to varying degrees, all experience peaks and valleys within their cycles, and as Hamel says, the arrival of COVID, just as the team was about to embark on a new upturn following a splendid 2018 season (8-3-1 GNAC, 5-1-0 at home) in which it lost 2-1 to Western Washington in the GNAC championship final, has provided the kind of healthy challenge which she and her young team have not shied away from embracing.
“I will say that last year 2020 would have been the first year of a new cycle,” Hamel begins.
“We knew 2019 was going to be difficult because we had lost eight starters, including (then-rising senior) Emma Pringle (ACL),” the coach continued, highlighting the former GNAC Freshman of the Year and D2CCA All-West Region first team selection who defined herself as one of the most prodigious goal scorers in program history. “Then 2020 didn’t happen,”
Hamel, nonetheless, calls 2021 “the first year of an exciting cycle.”
And that is because, in concert with a veteran core co-captained by defenders Goncalves and North Vancouver senior Emma Lobo, it’s hard to miss the rapid ascent freshmen like defender Emily Smith, and midfielders Annika Gross and Kate Cartier are making within the windows of extended minutes they are being afforded.
Take the UBC game for an example.
The roster had taken its share of dings through the preseason, and Hamel didn’t have her full compliment available.
So what wound up happening was 10 of SFU’s starting 11 that night playing the entire 90 minutes, making for a trim box-score account which included keeper Kelsey Fisher (soph), defenders Lobo (senior), Goncalves (junior), Smith (freshman) and Jenieva Musico (soph), midfielders Gross (freshman), Amanda Scott (soph), Giuliana Zaurrini (soph) and Danae Robillard (junior); and forward Raegan Mackenzie (freshman) all never leaving the pitch.
The only sub? The freshman Cartier came in for sophomore forward Kiara Buono.
“Seeing what I saw tonight,” she said after the game, “we didn’t make many subs, and they just ground it out.
“It’s performances like this, in the second half when the nerves have settled down because they are so young,” Hamel adds. “They are right there. I kept saying it to the bench. I kept saying to my staff. We’re one decision away. That one pass. That one touch. That one shot.
“We’re one moment away, and once they unlock, we’ll have more success. I am encouraged. I like where we’re headed.”
Simon Fraser completes it’s conference-opening weekend on Saturday as it hosts St. Martin’s in a 12 noon start at SFU Stadium.
Ahead of its own Oct. 14 GNAC home opener against Montana State Billings, the SFU men’s team will open its conference season next week, playing at St. Martin’s on Sept. 30 (3:30 p.m.) and at Northwest Nazarene Oct. 2 (1 p.m.).
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