ABBOTSFORD — Gurmaan Jhaj may have just turned 22, but he’s already an expert in sharpening the saw and building success brick by brick.
And the most impressive part of his story is that all of that expertise has not only helped him in his burgeoning career as a home construction magnate, but as one of the most explosive goal scorers in all of Canadian university men’s soccer.
“It’s always great to see your student-athletes have goals and chase after them,” remarks UFV Cascades’ head men’s soccer coach Tom Lowndes of his explosive fourth-year striker Jhaj, who while filling up the net and chasing his degree, is already playing a huge role outside of school with Jhaj Developments Inc., his family’s custom homes construction company. “Gurmaan has already has a direction to follow. He knows what he wants to do. So in a sense, that frees him up to only worry about soccer. It’s given him a new lease on life.”
And while Lowndes was actually referring to Jhaj’s career goals after he finishes playing the game, the way the former Aldergrove Community Secondary grad has been performing this season, you’re forgiven for thinking it was a cheeky play on words.
Jhaj has scored six goals in the Cascades’ first six games, and it’s enough to put him in a tie with UBC’s highly-decorated fifth-year transfer Caleb Clarke for first in the Canada West. Jhaj, Clarke and Alberta’s Easton Ongaro are locked in a three-way tie for first in points with eight apiece.
And on top of all of that, a Cascades’ team picked to finish 11th out of 13 teams the Canada West preseason coaches poll heads into Friday’s home match (8 p.m., MRC Sports Complex) against the Saskatchewan Huskies (2-4-0) with a 3-2-1 record, good enough for third place in the Pacific Division.
FINDING THE ‘X’ FACTOR
Last season, the Fraser Valley Cascades finished last in the Pacific with a 4-9-3 record, then broke camp in preparation for the new season with as many as six freshmen in the starting line-up.
Simple math strongly suggested all of this was a recipe for disaster.
That is, however, until Lowndes followed through on last season’s stretch-drive experiment in which he moved up Jhaj, his reliable holding centre-midfielder, to a spot as his go-to attacking striker.
Success begat success as Jhaj took that four-game stretch into the off-season, where he continued to re-hone his offensive mindset up front with Pegasus of the VMSL.
After scoring all three of his team’s goals in a 2-0 win Friday at Calgary’s Mt. Royal, then following up with a gem of a goal in an eventual 3-2 loss Sunday in Edmonton against No. 8 Alberta, the experiment could only be called an unqualified success.
“I am definitely loving it,” says Jhaj of his fulltime positional switch which, with nine games still remaining, has him just three goals shy of setting the program’s single-season conference scoring record. “Coming up in my youth career, I played an attacking midfield role but at UFV, I had transitioned to that holding midfield role.”
Lowndes was pretty sure it was going to work, and the one question he had was very quickly answered.
“He has the kind of skill set where he can literally play at any position and he strikes the ball well,” assessed Lowndes. “It was more a matter of ‘Could we get him into the right positions?’ And ‘Could we get him with his back to goal?’ You have to be able to link other players. And he’s done it. He’s a strong lad and a smart player. Right now, we’re seeing him at his best.”
And his multi-positional resume is a reason why he has been able to step so seamlessly into his new role.
“It’s vital for the striker to play with his back to the net because 90 per cent of the time, the (opposition) centre back is right on your tail,” Jhaj begins. “I find that when I played holding mid, it was a very similar role in that I had a centre-mid right on my back. So it’s allowed me to transition pretty quickly.”
THESE DAYS, HE’S ALL BUSINESS
Earlier in our story, Lowndes mentioned that Jhaj was enjoying “a new lease on life” at Fraser Valley.
And that’s because, back in the 2015, he wound up missing an entire season due to an academic-related mis-step.
Jhaj had gotten the required passing grades in one key summer class but failed to complete all of the course’s technical requirements.
“I didn’t get my grade back until the week before our season opener, so my option was to do an on-line course and miss a chunk of the season, or sit out the year and come back the following season,” he remembers.
Jhaj chose the latter, and admits readily that back then, he was more about playing soccer for the Cascades and preparing himself for the family business than he was about his classes.
“I didn’t care about the academic aspect as much my first year,” he says. “I was more focused on ‘I am at school to play soccer’, so it was a real wake-up call for me.”
These days, equilibrium has been established.
In fact Jhaj seems to be the very definition of the involved student-athlete.
Not only has he achieved excellence on the field as a leader for his Cascades, he has made the classroom a priority, preparing to take his additional course-related business acumen into the family’s construction business.
Yet Jhaj isn’t content to simply be handed a set of executive keys to the company.
So despite all of his student and academic demands at UFV, he is basically operating the company at a co-CEO level with his dad Ramandeep.
“My father and I, we do everything from start to finish,” he begins. “It’s the whole process from house plans, to budgets, to on-site management, to passing inspections. We divide up the tasks. He handles the on-site tasks and I do 100 per cent of the marketing, budgets and off-site stuff.”
It’s the team work he enjoys.
In fact in the one season he missed back in 2015, he trained with the team during the week, then went through the excruciating exercise of not being able to join them on the pitch come game day.
“That was tough,” he remember.
And that’s why he really does have a new lease on life.
“The thing I appreciate most,” Jhaj says, “is what happens every time we score a goal. On most teams, I see a bunch of individual celebrations. Here? Every goal we score is a team goal, so we all celebrate together. It definitely helps our spirit and our belief in each other.”
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