LANGLEY — It wasn’t a trip planned specifically as a soccer pilgrimage.
Training camps are serious business, and when you’ve played in five of the last seven U Sports national title games like the women’s team from Langley’s Trinity Western University have, it’s pretty clear that no part of the process can be ignored.
Yet allowing that same process to occur organically in a setting so steeped in storybook tradition adds a therapeutic element whose influence can’t be ignored.
“If there was one big thing that we experienced it was being reminded of our love and our joy for soccer,” explained Spartans’ stand-out left-back Kristen Sakaki earlier this week when asked to reflect on the net effect of the 12-day preseason training camp that the TWU Spartans held throughout England.
“Being in that culture where the game is such a big thing really brought us together even more,” the 2016 graduate of Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary continued. “Honestly, it brought us right down to the simplicity of loving soccer, and loving the fact that we do it together. Now, coming back home, what’s most evident is how we need to continue to remember that this is sport we love.”
All of that is Sakaki’s way of saying that amidst all of the daily entanglements of life, classes and sport, it’s easier to play the game at your best when it comes from a deeper place… a place rooted in joy.
On Friday, the nationally No. 2-ranked Spartans get back to the games that really matter when they travel to Vancouver to face host, rival and No. 9 UBC in the Canada West opener for both teams at Thunderbird Stadium (6:30 p.m.). On Saturday, the Spartans get another stiff test when they play at Victoria (5 p.m.) against the Vikes.
Trinity Western head coach Graham Roxburgh put together a busy two-week itinerary for his team in England, one which included not only daily training sessions and exhibition matches, but youth clinics and the opportunity for his team to attend a pair of Premier League matches, highlighted by Liverpool’s season-opener against Norwich City at Anfield.
“The girls got to see high, high calibre games but the feature of the trip was not ‘Let’s go over there and watch Premier League games,” laughed Roxburgh. “It was about our development, our training and our games, but also about ‘How do we give our players a soccer experience that will have a trickle down effect that stays with them when they get back home?’”
While based in both Birmingham and Liverpool, Trinity Western played five U.K. matches over a span of 11 days, finishing up with a 2-0-3 record capped by a 3-1 win over Liverpool FC’s U21 squad.
TWU also played West Bromwich Albion (W, 6-0), Wolverhampton (3-3), Blackburn (2-2) and Birmingham City (W, 2-0).
The Spartans also held a pair of soccer clinics for girls aged 8-to-12 in Birmingham and Liverpool, an experience that Roxburgh said helped educate the Trinity Western players and coaches on just how well-informed the throng of largely elementary school-aged players were about every part of their soccer world.
And when it came to just soaking up the culture, Sakaki says travelling to Anfield with her mates for Liverpool’s 4-1 win over Norwich City was nothing shy of a landmark moment in her soccer life.
“I’ve truly never experienced anything like that,” Sakaki said of being a part of the pageantry and one of the 53,333 in attendance. “From the moment we got there, the buzz in the atmosphere was like nothing I have ever been a part of.”
Roxburgh was also strategic in staging the camp overseas in 2019, based on the composition of this season’s team.
Stalwarts within last season’s graduating class like U Sports Player of the Year Seina Kashima, and fellow fifth-year Amy Gartke were no longer with the team.
There was, however, a deep and talented group of fourth- and fifth-year talents rising to the challenge, highlighted by fifth-year captain Jenaya Robertson and including the likes of fourth-years like Sakaki and Liz Hicks.
As well, at the other end of the spectrum, a group of incoming freshmen led by the likes of Charity Field, Maddie Melynchuk, Grace van den Brink and Mila Van der Veen on target to potentially see substantial minutes as rookies.
“This season, I wanted to get us out of town and do something special for our seniors and fourth-year players,” Roxburgh explained. “As well, we’ve also got a large influx of new players.”
All of that made it the perfect backdrop for a torch-passing scenario of sorts.
“We talked a lot this preseason about not riding on the success of past memories which were all mile-markers and special,” the coach began. “More than that, it was ‘Could this group of fourth- and fifth-year players almost help set a new legacy for the younger generation about the standards we want to uphold on and off the field?’ Not so much re-creating it, but maybe refining it. So we have kind of challenged them by asking them ‘Could you be the group that sets up the program for the next five-to-six years for long-term, sustained success?”
Sakaki, the kind of player for whom team captaincy would seem a natural progression before her TWU career is over, has typified that vision.
“Everyone from the rookies to the fifth-year players just said a collective ‘Wow’ when we got the opportunity to go train in the U.K.,” the Surrey United product says.
“I came to Trinity Western wanting to do well in school and make an impact with this team and over my first three years, my older teammates have taught me about being selfless and how you can’t slack off, in even the simplest ways,” she adds, referencing Gartke as a key mentor along her journey.
And yet as Roxburgh begins his third decade at the helm of a program he has guided to five national titles (2004, ’08, ’09, ’12, ’13), eight Canada West crowns and 10 straight U Sports national championship tournament appearances, was he of the mind back in his 1999 debut campaign that one day his program would have the kind of connections and vision to stage a training camp and full exhibition slate in England?
“Certainly it was in my dreams and ambitions,” he begins. “When I took over the Trinity program 20 years ago, we were a poor-to-average college team and that’s no slight on the college league. We weren’t very good. But then we went to the big leagues (CIS/U Sports), and we did more than survive. We excelled.
“We have always said that we wanted to build a program that one day could go and give our players both a taste of soccer and a taste of what the real world is all about.”
Regardless of you might define success, it seems that success has been met.
Graham Roxburgh is still too driven to say that anything has actually come full circle for him, yet in a sense last month in England, it did.
“My dad is from Liverpool,” says Roxburgh, who spent his youth growing up in England, in the town of Guildford. “Maybe five or six times a year, we would make the three-and-a-half hour drive to visit relatives and see the games (at Anfield), so I went to that stadium a number of times as a boy.
“That’s why it was so fun for me to see my players immersed with the English crowd, singing all the songs I sang and sharing in the passion. So for me, training camp was also like a little bit of a homecoming.”
In that sense, how can you not call it a soccer pilgrimage?
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