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After consecutive near-misses, UNBC men take aim at Canada West playoffs

T-wolves face uphill climb maintaining pace in stacked Pacific Division
UNBC Timberwolves forward Michael Henman battles for the ball with a UBC Thunderbirds defender during a Sept. 29, 2019 game at Masich Place Stadium.

Don’t be too surprised if the UNBC Timberwolves get down on their knees and kiss the turf before their game tonight in Victoria.

After more than a year of forced pandemic exile from playing soccer in the U SPORTS Canada West Conference, the T-wolves finally get to play at the university level again when they face the Victoria Vikes (7 p.m., Canada West TV) and that sense of relief on the team is pervasive.  

“We’re just happy to be back doing this,” said T-wolves head coach Steve Simonson. “There was a real jump in the step for these guys during preseason. Obviously we had some new faces join us but we just had everybody back together and they just really enjoyed being together again. The biggest positive is it’s a bit of normalcy.”

The T-wolves played two exhibition games in Alberta against college teams and crammed four days into three days in their preseason trip to Vancouver.

“A think we demonstrated a better attacking presence within our team,” said Simonson. “All the games were high-scoring, like 3-2, so we were conceding goals but also scoring goals, and usually we haven’t scored that high. So we have a real jump in our step in the front end of the field right now.”

Simonson says his team has showed a more unified approach to attacking with the ball in their possession than in previous years and he wants to see that trend continue and for his team to continue to generate quality chances, now that the real bullets are flying.

The biggest shoes to fill are that of goalie Rob Goodey, a second-team Canada West all-star who made 56 saves in 11 games in 2019 and was eligible to return for a sixth season, but decided not to prolong his university career. Simonson has tapped second-year Daniel Zadravec for the role as Goodey’s starting replacement. Zadravec played four games as a rookie, including a start against the powerhouse UBC Thunderbirds, and held the fort admirably. He’ll have two understudies, both Prince George products, with Yanni Ntapas and walk-on recruit Sukhman Singh on the roster. Simonson discovered Singh playing in the North Cariboo Senior Soccer Association.

Fourth-year Stuart Rowlands, who led the team with five goals in 2019, is joined by fifth-years Behery and local products Owen Stewart (who collected a team-high six points in 2019) and Alex Neilson, both midfielders.  

Centreback Cody Gysbers is back for his third kick at the Canada West can after missing two full seasons, having hurt his ankle before the 2019 season began. He’s in a group of third-year T-wolves that includes Cisse, Prince George native Anthony Preston (four goals in 14 games in 2019), PGYSA graduate Joseph Giesbrecht, defender Mitchell Linley and striker Michael Henman.

“One of the big ones was bringing Cody Gysbers back,” said Simonson. “He comes back in having played alongside Gordon (Hall) and Conrad (Rowlands), so that brings some stability at the back in  terms of experience.

“Alex Neilson is a Prince George kid and within the team he’s risen up and is now a player in the starting 11 position. We’ve got guys who have learned the league over time and have earned the right to take on new roles and are ready to do that.”

Zadravec, Ando, forward Gregor Smith and defenders Demian Dron and Luke Brbot are heading into their second seasons. Midfielder Noah Ballinger was with the 2019 team but red-shirted and still has five seasons of eligibility left.

UNBC has added to its out-of-country contingent with midfielders Toranosuke Omori of Japan and Loic Berquet of France, striker Dominic Paris of Jamaica and six-foot-three centreback Martin Grobein of Germany. That international mix includes returning midfielders Kensho Ando of Tokyo, Hussein Behery of Cairo and Abou Cisse of Bamako, Mali. Berquet got injured seven minutes into the preseason and won’t play tonight.

Midfielder/striker Connor Lewis picked soccer last year as his sport of choice, forgoing a possible university basketball career for the Duchess Park grad. His father Rob is an assistant coach at UNBC, along with former T-wolf Francesco Bartolilo. Lewis is among a list of 12 first-year players which includes midfielder Trevor Scott, defenders Julian Daduica and Matthew Botelho and Ntapas, all of whom climbed the Prince George Youth Soccer ladder. Nearly half the 26 player T-wolves roster is homegrown talent.

COVID is the midst of a fourth wave and the league has taken precautions to limit the spread by ruling out cross-divisional play against teams from Alberta Saskatchewan and Manitoba. UNBC will play a 12-game schedule strictly against Pacific Division opponents, some of which rank as the best teams in the country. In the first three weekends, the T-wolves face Victoria, Trinity Western and UBC, all of which are loaded with players who have stayed enrolled in school and are prolonging their soccer careers into a sixth season.

In 2019, T-wolves had an inexperienced back line, which ultimately resulted in a second-straight playoff miss, but they were still in the hunt until the final weekend. It will be tough to make it into the top-six this season that with what they have to work with, but not impossible.

“We’re excited, I think we have the makings of a good group but I will preface that by saying that there will not be team in our league that’s not good this year,” said Simonson. “On the guys’ side, it seems like a lot of the fifth-years on all the teams have come back that missed their year last year.

“There’s a lot of parity in our group. Every coach I’ve talked to is excited about their team, and that going to make it exciting.”