Men’s soccer season preview: Cascades aim to continue ascent

 

Daniel Davidson launches a free kick during a recent preseason game vs. SFU.

Daniel Davidson launches a free kick during a recent preseason game vs. SFU.

2015 Canada West season overview

Regular season record: 5-4-3, 3rd Pacific Division

Post-season record: 2-1, CW bronze medalists

Offence: 20 goals, 8th in CW

Defence: 19 goals against, 7th in CW

Awards: Tammer Byrne, CW second team all-star

Returning stat leaders:
F James Najman (2 goals, 4 assists)
M Connor MacMillan (3 goals, 1 assist) F Daniel Davidson (3 goals, 1 assist) GK Alex Skrzeta (5 wins, 3 shutouts)

*                *                *                *                *

The University of the Fraser Valley men’s soccer team, winners of two conference bronze medals in the past three seasons, are eying a return to the Canada West podium in 2016 – and to take a step beyond and earn the program’s first CIS championship berth.

They begin that journey in earnest this week, as they kick off the Canada West regular season at home. The Cascades host the Thompson Rivers WolfPack on Friday, and the UBC Okanagan Heat on Saturday. Both games kick off at 8 p.m. at MRC Sports Complex, Field 4 – the Cascades’ new home pitch.

Second-year head coach Tom Lowndes has a veteran crew at his disposal this season, headlined by a quartet of fifth-year players – forward James Najman, midfielders Connor MacMillan and Justin Sekhon, and defender Sahib Phagura – and a 2015 Canada West second team all-star in midfielder/defender Tammer Byrne.

James Najman is the Cascades' top returning point producer, coming off a 2015 season which saw him post two goals and four assists.

James Najman is the Cascades’ top returning point producer, coming off a 2015 season which saw him post two goals and four assists.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with these veteran players in some capacity for four years, and to see them grow and develop has been exciting,” Lowndes enthused. “They’ve come in hungry and want to achieve something this season, and with the support of the other returnees and the rookies, it’s the deepest our squad’s ever been.”

The Cascades will be adjusting to life without star right back Colton O’Neill, who finished his fifth and final year of eligibility last season. Byrne leads a reconfigured backline which also features Phagura, fourth-year standout Sukhjit Dhaliwal and rookie Ryan Donald, who has impressed throughout the preseason. They’ll be playing in front of keeper Alex Skrzeta, who is entering his second full season as starter and posted five wins and three clean sheets in 2015.

Attacking midfielder MacMillan is coming off an outstanding playoff run – he racked up three goals and an assist in three post-season matches, matching his output from the entire regular season, and he’ll be counted on as an offensive catalyst once again. Michael Mobilio and Gurmaan Jhaj also figure prominently into Lowndes’s midfield plans. Sekhon and Daniel Davidson provide attacking threats out wide in support of strikers Najman and Elijah Sampson.

WEEKEND PREVIEW

Cascades vs. Thompson Rivers WolfPack (1-1-0, 4th in Canada West), Friday, Sept. 2, 8 p.m.

Cascades vs. UBC Okanagan Heat (1-0-1, T2nd in Canada West), Saturday, Sept. 3, 8 p.m.

The Canada West men’s soccer regular season actually began last week, but the Cascades had an opening-week bye.

Both of their upcoming opponents are coming off impressive 2016 debuts at home against the UBC Thunderbirds and Victoria Vikes. UBC and UVic were picked to finish first and second, respectively, in the conference’s preseason coaches poll, but ran into stiff opposition in the B.C. Interior.

UBC Okanagan edged UVic 1-0 on Friday, then battled reigning conference champ UBC to a 1-1 draw on Saturday to claim four of a possible six points. The WolfPack, meanwhile, led the T-Birds 1-0 in the second half before succumbing 2-1 on Friday, but bounced back to thump the Vikes 4-0 the next day behind a hat trick from Justin Donaldson.

Neither UBCO nor TRU qualified for the playoffs last season, but the events of the past week extinguished any chance the Cascades will take them lightly.

“The league’s getting stronger and stronger every year, top to bottom, and TRU and UBCO both proved that,” Lowndes observed. “There’s no easy games in Canada West. You’ve got to go into each game prepared to do the things you need to do to be successful.”

Against TRU, that involves keeping the WolfPack offence – led by Donaldson and 2015 Canada West all-star Ryan Glanville – under wraps.

“John (Antulov, WolfPack head coach) has done a good job of recruiting some quality players, and they work hard,” Lowndes said. “They’re very organized, very structured and dangerous on set pieces.”

Spencer Young and Luke Warkentin scored the goals for UBCO last weekend, while keeper Mitch McCaw posted a six-save shutout vs. UVic.

“Every year, they’re getting stronger and stronger,” Lowndes said. “They’re a very organized team, and they’ll look to give us some problems on the counterattack.”

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