ABBOTSFORD — Toughness and togetherness are a pair of attributes celebrated within the culture of one of the youngest U Sports women’s soccer teams in the nation.
So much so that on Monday, before each week of practice is set to begin for Abbotsford’s Fraser Valley Cascades, its players take the time to honour their own by voting for the teammates they feel have best exemplified those two qualities.
This week, for only the second time in the last three seasons, it was the same player deemed worthy of hoisting both the Nails award for mental and physical toughness, and the Glue award for the fostering of team unity.
Yet there was a lot more to the moment than simply mugging for the camera with a six-inch iron spike in one hand, and dollar store glue stick in the other for fourth-year team captain Brittney Zacharuk, the North Delta native whose six combined points not only led Fraser Valley (3-3-2) to a road sweep of UBC Okanagan and Thompson Rivers, but restored playoff relevancy to a young team preparing for a brutally-tough six game stretch-drive end to its Canada West Pacific Division schedule.
When viewed through a wider prism, Zacharuk’s team honour and subsequent selection as Canada West women’s First Star of the Week was confirmation that a one-on-one meeting she had with head coach Rob Giesbrecht before this past weekend’s road swing helped her realize that she had the wherewithal to be both the nails and glue her team needed.
“It wasn’t a fluke,” laughed Zacharuk, 21, a history major who had registered two goals and one assist over the first six games of the season, but combined to score three times and assist on two others as the Cascades beat UBC Okanagan 3-1 on Saturday in Kelowna, then blanked Thompson Rivers 3-0 on Sunday in Kamloops.
“I think I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to show the girls what it takes to lead, and in doing so, I was taking myself out of games mentally,” continued Zacharuk, a graduate of Surrey’s Holy Cross Regional Secondary. “Having that conversation allowed me to take a step back and know that I can play well, and that this is how I should play. Coming into this season, I’d never won the Glue award”
And her re-emergence as a go-to offensive catalyst is somewhat reminiscent of her play as a pure freshman back in 2015 when the TSS-produced Zacharuk scored five goals and assisted on five others after joining a Cascades team which was coming off a berth the season prior in the U Sports national tournament.
Back then, like this past weekend, it was all about playing from the heart.
“When you have leadership expectations, you can get bogged down from that stuff,” says Giesbrecht, who should have Zacharuk’s best version of herself on the pitch for the regular season’s most challenging games yet, a home-and-home set beginning Friday (5 p.m.) in Langley and concluding Sunday (2 p.m.) at home (MRC Sports Complex) against the Pacific Division-leading Trinity Western Spartans (7-1-0).
“I encouraged her to play with more freedom,” continued Giesbrecht. “I told her to let her play lead the way, and that would be her platform to lead vocally. She went out with a smile and she rocked all weekend.”
With the top six in both the Pacific and Prairie divisions making the Canada West playoffs, fifth-place UFV has a challenging road ahead, with each of its five remaining foes sitting at .500 or better.
After facing the Spartans twice, the Cascades host Mount Royal (5-2-1) and Alberta (7-0-1) the following weekend, then wrap up Oct. 19 at Victoria (4-4-1) and Oct. 20 at UBC (7-2-0).
“We’re a young team and improving as season is going along,” says Giesbrecht of a roster which features 19 players in either their first or second seasons of eligibility. “It’s important for us to have the right mentality entering the games. We’re learning how to win, learning how to be at our best consistently. So now, as we play some very tough teams in October, it’s time for us to rise to the challenge.”
That starts 5 p.m. Friday at Trinity Western, where the Cascades will have to contend with a Spartans’ team led by fifth-year, conference points leader Seina Kashima (5-7-12).
Zacharuk’s strategy to lead her team into the weekend with the best balance of nails and glue?
“It’s going to be to keep a level head, and to constantly remind the girls what matters most on and off the field,” says Zacharuk, a history major with designs of one day becoming a teacher and returning to Holy Cross, where she formerly played on the school’s varsity soccer team.
And perhaps for the first time in her university soccer career, Brittney Zacharuk is empowered by the fact that she can inspire in her teammates, both a toughness and a togetherness.
It’s what happens when you have the nail and the glue.
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