LANGLEY — Graham Roxburgh and Rob Giesbrecht first met on the practice pitch at Trinity Western University more than a quarter-century ago.
And ever since crossing paths in their early 20’s, they’ve not only worked together, they’ve just spent the past decade scheming against each other.
Along their parallel journeys, the pair formed a bond as soccer brothers strong enough to suggest that the longer they coached, the more likely they were headed for a reunion.
So it’s perhaps fitting, that as Canadian university sports comes out of its season-long, pandemic-induced hibernation looking for fresh re-starts across the board, that the Trinity Western women’s soccer program takes a step back to the future for its Canada West-opening weekend (5 p.m. starts Friday and Saturday against the visiting UBC Okanagan Heat at Chase Office Field), bringing back its former assistant coach Giesbrecht in a larger role under longtime head coach Roxburgh, pairing a duo which last patrolled the sidelines together in 2004, the groundbreaking season in which the Spartans won the school’s first-ever U SPORTS (then-CIS) national title.
So deeply-rooted are the pair within the evolution of what has since become one of the nation’s premier women’s soccer programs that its best to let the full narrative naturally untangle.
What’s most germane, however, is this: After spending the past decade turning the rival Fraser Valley Cascades women’s program into a contending force in the toughest conference in the country, Giesbrecht, 48, has returned to his Langley-based alma mater, the place where he both played and coached (1991-2004), to reunite with Roxburgh, 50, who has hired him to fill the newly-created dual-role of lead assistant and Manager of Soccer Operations.
Organizationally, it not only represents the depth of commitment Roxburgh has sought in his attempts to not only annex a sixth national U Sports women’s title, but his desire to empower his student-athletes with an understanding of the positive potential they carry both inside and outside the soccer community.
All of that aside, however, there’s some pretty interesting dynamics at play when the subject of a decade of competitiveness between two friends is raised in each other’s company, like asking Giesbrecht to recount a big moment that his former Cascades teams may have had against the Spartans on the field of play.
That was the question posed Tuesday as the pair, preparing to go to lunch, were cornered by your author over speakerphone.
First, there is silence.
Then, there is Roxburgh’s deadpan voice.
“He beat me in the 2010 Canada West semifinals… he stopped our bid for a national championship three-peat,” began Roxburgh of a shoot-out loss in Giesbrecht’s first season at the helm of the Cascades, one in which he eventually led UFV to a bronze medal at the national tournament, and more significantly, brought home to Abbotsford the first U SPORTS national medal in any sport in Cascades’ history.
“It’s a pretty sore topic,” continued Roxburgh. “We were headed to lunch together, but maybe now, we’re headed to different restaurants.”
Then, after a brief and near-uncomfortable moment of silence, there is a blast of shared, unbridled laughter.
SHARED ROOTS COME TO FRUITION
The origin of their friendship goes back to 1993, the year Roxburgh came to Trinity Western and took a position as an assistant under former men’s head coach Al Alderson, whose team that season included Giesbrecht, a third-year player.
Giesbrecht felt the pull to coaching literally before he had even unlaced his boots for the final time as a collegian, in 1995 with the Spartans.
That next semester, he was getting his feet wet as an assistant with the 1996 men’s team. Then, in 1999 he returned as an assistant under Roxburgh, who was beginning his first year in what has now become a 23-season run as head coach of the women’s program.
Over the next six seasons, Giesbrecht cut his teeth as Trinity Western made its move from the CCAA to then-CIS expansion program status in 2001, to that of national champions in 2004.
“That was six years of hard work,” said Giesbrecht. “Trinity was a bit of an unknown and always the underdog, so to get that first national championship fuelled my desire to further my coaching abilities, to go find a head coaching opportunity.
“I learned a ton through those first six years of building a program, and I got to appreciate the holistic view of working with athletes. I got to help them, and I got to see the amount of work that goes into creating opportunities for them to have success.”
After spending six years (2005-09) as head coach of the women’s team at NAIA Concordia (Neb.), he returned to B.C. as the Cascades head coach, compiling a 59-46-29 record in conference games, in addition to fashioning both third- and fourth-place finishes at the U Sports national championships.
“I had a great time at UFV and really learned a lot working with some great people,” said Giesbrecht.
Those experiences coupled with his past TWU history made for a CV that Roxburgh knew was impossible to duplicate.
“It’s just invaluable to have someone with Rob’s experience,” said Roxburgh, who outlined Giesbrecht’s new responsibilities as not only those of lead assistant, but as a vital part of scouting and community outreach, as well leading efforts with its expanding academy program, and its junior varsity and summer league teams. “And our close friendship, and our history of working together and really loving that didn’t hurt my desire to want to bring him back to be a Spartan.”
And when you ask Roxburgh to put the impact of that first national title in 2004 into some kind of perspective, it stands as a milestone just four years into the program’s U SPORTS (then-CIS) existence, and something which enabled him, ahead of schedule, to focus on the program’s potential to meet bigger-picture goals.
“We needed to build a program back then that could compete at the CIS level and we were probably a little ahead of the game in terms of winning so early,” he admitted. “I have always said to be good that you have to work hard, you have to be a little lucky to win and you’ve got to win with the right people.”
Look at those tenets as a 1-2-3 and Giesbrecht, it turns out, has always done the first, has always been appreciative of the second, and was clearly one of the third.
And so as he has returns to his alma mater, it’s been the experiences of those past 10 years at UFV which help him so easily distill his coaching essentials.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that there is no shortcut to success,” Giesbrecht says. “You need to build relationships and develop trust amongst your team, and the teams that do that the best are the ones which have the strongest relationships amongst them. So I am really focussed on developing people as opposed to just soccer players.”
In the end, to find a shared span of coaching longevity, which, season for season, has matched a lifelong friendship? That is indeed a rare and special thing.
The last time Roxburgh and Giesbrecht shared a sideline together in meaningful competition was back on Nov. 13th of 2004, the final day of a storybook season in which the Spartans left Montreal with the school’s first-ever U SPORTS national title following a 3-2 win over host McGill.
Now, 17 years later, no deep-dive analysis is needed to determine how meaningful each considers their reunion.
“We felt like we were doing something together,” Roxburgh says when asked to reflect on the magic of 2004. “So, yes, that has been a huge joy to return to.
“Yes, I will say there is a hierarchy, and yes, I am the head coach,” he continues. “But my leadership style is very inclusive to say to Rob ‘We’re doing this together’, whether that’s academy stuff, recruiting, or ultimately winning games. So that’s been really positive.
“But he is his own thinker, too,” continues Roxburgh. “I love the fact that we’ll come together in the morning and think about training… how we can be better. To know he built a winning program at UFV, and that he has a good perspective on what it was like to play us and prepare for us, that is also invaluable.
“And when he has a different perspective than me, it only helps me sharpen my own perspective.”
The TWU men’s program, a Canada West playoff team the past four seasons under head coach Mike Shearon, also open the 2021 campaign Friday and Saturday with a pair of 7:15 p.m. starts at home to UBC Okanagan.
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