Season preview: Men’s soccer team enters Lowndes era with plenty of talent, experience on roster

Tom Lowndes coaches his first Canada West regular season game as Cascades head coach on Saturday. (Tree Frog Imaging photo)

Tom Lowndes coaches his first Canada West regular season game as Cascades head coach on Saturday. (Tree Frog Imaging photo)

The University of the Fraser Valley men’s soccer team has a new head coach on the sideline, but plenty of familiar faces back on the pitch as they prepare to launch into the 2015-16 Canada West regular season this weekend.

Tom Lowndes, who spent the previous two years as an assistant coach under Alan Errington, has taken the reins of the program after Errington retired in March after 11 years at the helm of the Cascades.

Easing Lowndes’s transition into the top job is the fact he’s got an impressive crew of returnees at his disposal, along with a talented group of freshmen.

“It’s a real solid group,” Lowndes said, analyzing his roster. “They’ve grown a lot together over the preseason, it’s been interesting to see. As far as ability and how far we could go, I think the sky is the limit. If they start strong and get on a roll, I honestly believe they can accomplish things we haven’t before.”

The Cascades finished third in the Pacific Division last season at 6-5-1, and dropped a heartbreaker in the Canada West quarter-finals to the UVic Vikes.

They’re aiming to chart a return trip to the playoffs as they open their regular season schedule on the road this weekend. The Cascades take on the UBC Okanagan Heat on Saturday, and the Thompson Rivers WolfPack on Sunday. Both games kick off at 2 p.m., and can be viewed online at canadawest.tv.

Lowndes has a talented, experienced group at his disposal, highlighted by an outstanding backline. Leading the way at the back are Colton O’Neill and Tammer Byrne. O’Neill, a right back entering his fifth and final year of eligibility, is coming off an outstanding 2014 campaign which saw him pace the Cascades with five goals and three assists, and earn Canada West first team all-star honours. Centre back Byrne was UFV’s 2014 male rookie of the year across all sports, and showed poise well beyond his years as a freshman. Sahib Phagura and Sukhjit Dhaliwal round out the defensive starters.

Fourth-year players Connor MacMillan and Justin Sekhon will be among the leaders in a deep midfield corps. Returnees Michael Mobilio, Kree Byrne (Tammer’s older brother) and Connor O’Neill (Colton’s twin brother), and rookies Dylan McCrindle and Brady Weir will also factor into the equation.

Up front, a quartet of veterans – Daniel Davidson, Daniel Molendijk, Elijah Sampson and James Najman – will vie for playing time.

In goal, sophomore Alex Skrzeta takes over the starting job following the graduation of former conference all-star and current Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 player Mark Village.

Lowndes’s blueprint for his squad begins with playing an entertaining, possession-oriented style.

“We want to keep the ball, and we want to hurt teams with possession,” he said. “My goal is for us, two or three weeks in, to be flying. I want us to develop and get better every day. That goes for me as well – can I learn from every session? I’m excited to get into regular season games – I’ve been waiting for this since April. I think we have the potential to do something special this year.”

Lowndes noted that starting the regular season on the road is a good test for his squad.

“They’re not easy places to go, UBCO and TRU,” he said, noting that both the Heat and the WolfPack are big, tough, physical squads. “We’re going to have to be smart, and we’re going to have to play very quickly to avoid their high pressure. But if we play our style, I’m confident we can come out of the weekend with positive results.”

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