VANCOUVER — It was a week-long, season-opening boot camp from hell, scheduled to test their mettle, reveal their character and start to define their new identity as a soccer team.
It’s a process that can’t be avoided when you graduate a pair of attacking phenoms — Jasmin Dhanda and Aman Shergill — who accounted for fully 62 per cent of your goal-scoring attack from the season before.
Thursday’s home non-conference opener for the UBC Thunderbirds may have ended in a 3-2 loss at the hands of a Western Washington Vikings team currently sitting at No. 5 in NCAA Div. 2 rankings.
Yet to fully understand just how the 2018 ‘Birds are coming together under third-year head coach Jesse Symons, it’s important to note that UBC was playing not only its fourth match in seven days, but that the first three came stateside against an exclusive diet of NCAA Div. 1 teams.
After opening with a 3-1 loss at Portland last Friday, the ‘Birds followed Saturday with a 2-0 blanking of the Pac 12’s Oregon State Beavers, then finished Monday with a 1-0 win over Portland State.
“I think overall, to start this season, we wanted to focus on getting a lot of players a lot of minutes,” said Symons. “We definitely had tired legs today, but full credit to the girls for coming back from 2-0 after a pair of pretty unlucky goals.”
Jordyn Bartelson and Gabriela Pelogi counted goals just 70 seconds apart 18 minutes into the contest, and the early 2-0 deficit proved especially elusive for a UBC team which was clearly working off reserve energy.
Margaret Hadley scored in the 37th minute to cut it to 2-1, and although Dani Steer’s half-volley blast in the 54th minute tied the contest 2-2, WWU’s Zoe Milburn was able to score what proved to be the winner in the 79th minute.
And although Symons would loved to have seen the ‘Birds push their win streak to three games with a victory heading into a brief respite from the preseason schedule, he did feel that the team’s 2-2-0 start said a lot about what kind of team the 2018 Thunderbirds will be.
“You just don’t bring in an Aman or a Jasmin year after year,” Symons said. “I’d love to, but those kinds of players don’t come around every season. But at the same time, I think what we’ve show thus far is that those players taught these ones about how to attack and how to score goals.”
Replacing the impact of Dhanda and Shergill, who not only dominated within the team, but in the conference and across the U Sports nation as well, will truly have to be a team effort.
Dhanda led Canada West with 14 goals and 20 points, while Shergill was second in goals with nine. Shergill also led the conference in assists (nine) and shots (72).
UBC continues that process with an exhibition this coming Wednesday (10 a.m.) at Simon Fraser. Games then continue Aug. 25 against Whitecaps REX (12 p.m.) and Aug. 27 against Douglas College (7 p.m.), both at Thunderbird Stadium, before the team’s Canada West conference opener Sept. 1 at the Victoria Vikes.
“Right now they are all fighting in the preseason to earn starting positions,” said Symons, “and they are making our job hard. We’ve had five different players (Hadley, Steer (2), Alyssa Hunt, Michelle Jang, Tess McRae) score goals for us in our first four games and they all play up front. They are pushing each other and they are making us ask questions. I think this season, we’re going to have a lot of balanced scoring.”
McRae, Rachel Jones, Hadley, Hunt and Amelia Crawford have given the forward-midfield rotation an encouraging start while the back line has featured the likes of Jessica Williams, Emma Kallner, Emma Peckinpaugh and freshman Taylor Reynolds.
“Margaret Hadley is a midfielder who can also play up front and as a fifth-year, she’s taken this team on her shoulders a bit,” said Symons. “After setting up a pair of goals in Oregon, it was great to see her score one today.”
Goalkeeper Emily Moore, who backed up the graduated Marlee Maracle last season, recorded clean sheets against both Oregon State and Portland State. Moore saw action Thursday in the first half while freshman Sarah Johns played in the second.
“This beginning has been good for us to get some good pictures,” related Symons of the first four games. “We played in three different shapes over the first four games and that gives us some good opportunity for evaluation as we lead towards Simon Fraser.”
Last season, UBC advanced all the way to the Canada West Final Four before being eliminated 3-0 by the rival Trinity Western Spartans.
“The mindset is always to compete and push through to that semifinal and see what can happen,” added Symons. “Canada West is always so tough with its travel and its back-to-backs, but with our depth this season, I think we’ll be in a position to compete every week.”
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