Major life milestones, like Senior Night for a university athlete, can feel a little bit like hopping in the DeLorean, Marty McFly-style, and traveling through time at warp speeds.
At least, that’s the way James Najman tells it. He’s one of five outstanding University of the Fraser Valley men’s soccer players – along with Connor MacMillan, Sahib Phagura, Justin Sekhon and Sukh Dhaliwal – who will be honoured on Saturday during the team’s 2016 home-field finale against the UNBC Timberwolves (8 p.m. kickoff at MRC Sports Complex, Senior Night ceremony at 7:50 p.m.).
And the whole scenario blows his mind a little bit.
“I remember (former Cascades captain) Trevor O’Neill coming up to me in my first year and saying, ‘You have no idea how fast this is going to fly. Enjoy every single second like it’s your last,’” Najman recounted. “And sure enough, I’m sitting here in my fifth year thinking, ‘He was right.’ It’s insane to think about.”
Najman, MacMillan and Sekhon all arrived on campus together in the fall of 2012 – Phagura arrived a year earlier (an injury redshirt season in 2014 added a year to his tenure), and Dhaliwal arrived a year after (having begun his post-secondary career at SFU before transferring).
Together, they’ve been part of a Cascades nucleus which sparked a rise from also-ran to contender in Canada West. UFV men’s soccer missed the playoffs each of the program’s first seven Canada West campaigns, but they’ve tasted the post-season each of the past four years, highlighted by conference bronze medals in 2013 and 2015.
“They’re class acts,” Cascades head coach Tom Lowndes said of the quintet. “They’ve done a lot for this program – they’ve been involved in our two bronze medals, and they’ve helped drive the program forward. They’re good kids as well as good players, and they’ll be missed. We appreciate how they’ve helped us to grow. We want them to go out with a bang, and we wish them all the best in their futures.”
The local trio of Phagura, Sekhon and Dhaliwal all came up through the Abbotsford United and Abbotsford Soccer Association club systems, and each expressed an awareness that they’re looked upon as role models in the Indo-Canadian community.
“All these younger kids are looking up to us and wanting to come to UFV, because of me, Justin, Sukh, Herman (Gill), Gurmaan (Jhaj),” Phagura said. “They’re all looking at that, thinking ‘We can make it too.’ It’s a good thing.”
Phagura, an imposing figure on the UFV backline, missed the first half of the season due to a knee injury, and his presence in recent weeks has gone a long way towards solidifying the Cascades’ defensive posture. Lowndes said the Cascades have been “a different team” since Phagura’s return, and that the 6’2” centre back has been a “pillar of strength.”
Phagura picked the Cascades over other university soccer programs because Alan Errington, the head coach at the time, promised him immediate playing time. Sekhon had a similar light-bulb moment during his recruiting process.
Driving to school one day during his Grade 12 year, the talented midfielder received a phone call from Colin Miller, the current FC Edmonton bench boss who was serving as Errington’s assistant coach at the time.
“I’d never, ever had a phone call from him,” Sekhon said of Miller, who had just finished an assistant-coaching stint with Derby County of the English Premier League. “And he’s like, ‘You’re coming to UFV, right?’ . . . That’s when I committed to UFV – on the highway going to school.
“I’m glad I chose here. It’s like a family here. I’ve grown up with these guys.”
Dhaliwal’s journey to UFV was more circuitous. Recruited by Errington out of high school, he instead decided to focus on academics and began engineering studies at SFU. But in the spring of his freshman year, the Cascades showed up on the Burnaby campus for an exhibition game against the SFU Clan. Dhaliwal went out to watch his old youth soccer buddies play, and it hit him like a lighting bolt – he wasn’t ready to be done with competitive soccer.
This year, the defender has worn the captain’s armband for the Cascades.
“Playing for so long and then stopping, full stop, was really hard,” he said. “Seeing the guys playing together and competing told me I wanted to come back. . . . It’s been an amazing experience.
“The whole experience has taught me a lot – responsibility-wise, how to balance school and work with playing twice a week, training, studying on the bus rides and plane rides. I’ve really grown as a person and matured.”
MacMillan’s origin story has humble beginnings. The Chilliwack product was a walk-on in 2012, having emailed Errington on Aug. 5 – the first day of the Cascades’ preseason – to inquire about a tryout.
“I came out and played an intrasquad game,” he recalled. “I played well, and they said, ‘You have two weeks to keep playing well, or you’re cut.’
“I remember at first, playing against Trevor O’Neill, Sasa (Plavsic), Craig Robinson . . . to me, it was like, ‘I want to be like (them). I want to be one of the best on the team in a year or two.’”
Indeed, the midfield dynamo has grown into one of the Cascades’ offensive engines.
Najman’s journey to the UFV soccer program is the most unlikely. The Surrey-born forward was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 11, and missed most of two grades of school due to major surgeries. His youth soccer career was an afterthought.
But once he found the right medication, Najman was able to return to the pitch and carve out an improbable – but highly productive – five-year career with the Cascades.
“I definitely didn’t think university soccer was in the picture at the time,” Najman said, thinking back to his diagnosis. “Once I started getting the right medication and started getting healthier . . . I started to realize, ‘Hey, I might actually go somewhere.’
“It just shows that if you stick with your goals and stick to what you believe in and what you want to do, you can go places.”
This five-man group is leaving a tremendous legacy at UFV in terms of establishing the men’s soccer program as a perennial playoff presence. They’d love to end their Cascades tenure by taking the next step and qualifying for the national championship tournament.
“I think we have the team to go to nationals, so to end our fifth year that way . . . I can’t even imagine what that would feel like,” MacMillan mused.
Saturday, then, is about celebrating a unique milestone, but there’s still much more to do.