ABBOTSFORD — It takes a pretty honest architect to unroll the blueprint and wield the eraser when the plans for a newly-poured foundation have barely had the opportunity to settle.
Yet when Tom Lowndes pulled the figurative pencil off his ear this past off-season, re-examining the schematic which doubled as the roster of the 2017 Fraser Valley men’s soccer team, the Cascades’ head coach quickly realized that unless he hit the re-start button on construction, any plans for an elevator ride to the eventual upper reaches of the Canada West conference were sure to remain stalled on the lobby floor.
“We knew we needed to be better, so we set about changing the culture of the team,” Lowndes said Friday as the team prepared to host the Simon Fraser Clan in a friendly at its MRC Sports Complex headquarters. “It meant I had to make some tough decisions on player selection. So we’ve brought in players that want to buy into the culture of the program, and buy into the way we want to play. And, we’ve removed the players that didn’t want to buy into that culture.”
All of this, of course, comes on the heels of last season’s disappointing 4-9-3 conference record.
It marked not only the first time in the past five seasons that the Cascades had missed out on a post-season berth, but a stumble to the nether regions of the Canada West table on the heels of a program-best 8-6-2 mark in 2016 in which Fraser Valley, quite remarkably, recorded a clean sheet in each of its conference wins.
UFV is set to open its 2018 conference season Saturday (1 p.m.) in Kamloops against Thompson Rivers, following with a game Sunday (3 p.m.) in Kelowna against UBC Okanagan. There has been talk that the games may be relocated to the Abbotsford-Langley region, to be hosted by both UFV and Trinity Western, depending the level of air quality in the up-country regions in question due to ongoing forest fires. The Spartans were set to open Saturday in Kelowna and play in Kamloops on Sunday. A decision on the games could come Wednesday. UFV plays its regularly-scheduled home opener Friday, Aug. 31 against UBC.
And make no mistake, Lowndes is not treating the process of culture change with mere lip service.
During the off-season, the former Bristol Rovers FC Academy and Simon Fraser Clan player, now entering his fourth year as UFV head coach, wrapped up a marathon of player procurement by securing the names of 15 pure freshmen recruits.
“If you look at the team this year we’ve got a lot more fight, a lot more bite and a lot more hunger about us,” said Lowndes, whose travel-weary team took a 1-0 deficit into the second half Friday before surrendering a pair of late goals to lose 3-0 against a Clan team picked as the preseason favourite in the NCAA Div 2 Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
“We’ll pick up a few more yellow cards this year,” continued Lowndes, who started six freshmen (forward Andrew Peat, midfielders Sahil Dhindsa, Rajan Bains and Trevor Zanatta, and defenders Sahib Sidhu and Kyle Gibson) against the Clan. “But when you’re young, and you have that enthusiasm and that willingness to work, that is the basis of everything.”
A GOAL FOR MORE GOALS
A lot of pretty simple math told the story of a Fraser Valley team which last season finished last in the Canada West’s seven-team Pacific Division, going 0-3-1 over its final fourth matches, and scoring just 17 goals in 16 games, while surrendering 31.
Yet despite its youth, and despite the presence of just three fifth-year players on this season’s roster, the Cascades put together an impressive 3-1-0 trip through Washington and Oregon Aug. 10-17.
UFV fashioned wins over Whatcom, Multnomah and Northwest Christian, outscoring the trio 11-1, while dropping a 1-0 decision to Evergreen State.
“We conceded three tonight, but you could tell that the last 20 minutes we looked heavy-legged from our trip,” said Lowndes of a span in which the Clan managed to put the game away. “But that was the challenge. Could we fight through it? During the season (Oct. 12-13 on the road) we’re going to have to play UBC one night and then Victoria the next, and that’s back-to-back nights.”
The Cascades, conference bronze medalists in both 2013 and ’15, have long ago established gritty team defence as a program staple.
Yet over the past few seasons, including its program-best heights in 2016, offence has been an issue.
Factor in the proliferation of freshmen on this season’s team and it was pretty clear Lowndes had to lean on some creative means of finding a new core of goal scorers.
And while this season’s home debut of fourth-year Gurmaan Jhaj and second-year Parman Minhas did not produce a goal on Friday, the converted midfielders did manage to create their share of chances, showcasing their pace and their ability to create havoc off the counter-attack.
“I have always been a box-to-box midfielder,” said Jhaj, an Aldergrove Community School grad. “But over the summer with my men’s team, and even towards the end of last season with UFV, I went more up top to give us a different threat and now I am pretty comfortable with it. I feel like playing with my back to the goal, I can link up with my teammates really well and Parman is so quick, and he likes to play off me.”
Lowndes admits that it’s a case of necessity being the mother of invention.
“We don’t have a ton of strikers,” he said. “But those guys have done really well and they’ve taken a shine to it. Tonight, on the counter attack, we had so much pace and power. We’ll score more goals this year. I am adamant about that.”
The Canada West pre-season coaches poll was released Monday, and without surprise, the UBC Thunderbirds, who this season play host to the U Sports national tournament, were tabbed as the team to beat.
The Cascades were picked to finished 11th in a field of 13 teams.
For Lowndes, however, there are different measuring sticks involved.
“When we had our meeting at the start of the year, we said ‘What’s our goal?’ and the players all said ‘Get back the playoffs.’ So for us, when we look at a team like UBC, we’re not worried about finishing first in Canada West. Our plan is to get back to the playoffs. We’ve got other teams to compete with, and if we can take points off the top dogs, fantastic.”
With foundational changes needing to be made, Lowndes jumped head first into recruiting this past offseason, his radar especially tuned for the kinds of character players he knew his program needed more of.
The pitch was the simple part.
“We said to them ‘Look, you are going to be at the base of the program for the next four-to-five years,” Lowndes explained. “Do you want to be a part of something like that, or do you want to go somewhere where you might not play for the first two or three years? It’s early, but I think we definitely exceeded our expectations in the players that we have brought in.”
Adds Sidhu, a defender from Surrey United and Fleetwood Park Secondary, on what he and the rest of the massive freshman class want to bring: “We have the work ethic and we are all committed. Now, it’s all about getting the experience. We’re not worried about how old all the other teams are. We’re ready to come in, work hard, and fight.”
Lowndes has been around long enough to know that the true identity of his new team will come in the way they answer the call over each and every week of the Canada West season.
But he is certain of one thing, and to him, there is perhaps nothing more important. It’s all about pluck.
“We’re more than good enough to make the playoffs this season, with the fact that we’ve got so much more added fight,” he says. “That’s what we were missing last season. If I could have taken 50 per cent of the fight of this team, last year we would have been a lot closer to the playoffs.
“The big thing for them will be how quickly can they adjust,” he concludes. “If they adjust quickly, then I think we’ll have success. But if they don’t, the fact that we have the fight and the willingness to battle will always give us a chance.”
No coach can ask for anything more.
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