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T-wolves tackling T-birds

The UNBC Timberwolves know they are miles ahead of where they were at this time last season.
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The UNBC Timberwolves know they are miles ahead of where they were at this time last season.

Two close losses on home turf to the Trinity Western Cascades last weekend showed the T-wolves they are on the road to respectability after suffering through a 1-10-1 season in 2015.

But if they really want to know how far they have to go to get to the top of the CIS Canada West Conference men's soccer standings there's no better litmus test than what's ahead for the T-wolves this weekend when they travel to Vancouver to play the defending champion UBC Thunderbirds in a two-game set Saturday and Sunday.

UBC, a perennial favourite, went 10-0-2 last season and won the bronze medal at the CIS championship tournament in Toronto. The T-birds started their season on the road last weekend with a 2-1 win over Thompson Rivers,then tied UBC-Okanagan 1-1.

"They're usually ranked Number 1 in Canada West and one of the top three or four in Canada but they're a different team every year," said T-wolves head coach Steve Simonson. "They've lost some significant players from last year but I know the recruits they have and the guys stepping up this year are good players.

"We want to improve ourselves this year and we welcome these games and our guys are pretty excited about it. When this program is ready we want to be playing in Canada West playoff soccer and those are the teams you have to beat to do it."

Last Friday in their opener, the T-wolves opened the scoring on a goal from forward Cheona Edzerza were 15 minutes away from going into extra time with the Spartans when Cody Fransen scored the eventual winner for Trinity Western. The Spartans won the rematch Saturday 2-0.

"We had two close games with Trinity and probably could have gotten something out of both of them," said Simonson.

"We showed some resilience and kept fighting so that was good for us, whereas last year if we gave up a goal, we'd give up two or three. We mentally weren't strong. For long periods of the game we were the team matching or dominating possession with them, whereas before we were the team up against the ropes for parts of the game. We created chances in both games to score, whereas last year we created very few chances.

"I think we've made lots of positive strides forward, not just surviving games but pushing to really compete in games."

Among the new recruits Simonson has brought in this season, three of his first-year players - Owen Stewart of Prince George, Cody Gysbers and Jonah Smith, both of Victoria - stood out in the two games against TRU.

"They started both games and either played 90 minutes or close to it, which is a real credit to them, they all did really well," said Simonson. "I think Owen and Cody are still 17 and Jonah is 18, and for them to play the way they did is maybe a testament to where this program is going."

Stewart, a midfielder, filled in for starting wingback Josh McAvoy, a third-year veteran who broke his foot in the a preseason game and could be sidelined for two months.

When defender Gordon Hall got tossed early in the second half last Saturday when he got a little too rambunctious clearing out Spartans forward Vito Poletto while coming to the aid of goalie Mitch MacFarflane, that left a big hole in the UNBC lineup and forward Tofa Fakunle was forced to move back to a midfield position. Simonson has plans to better utilize the finishing offensive capabilities of Fakunle and Francesco Bartolillo.

"Francesco is a very solid player and we want to try and find ways to get him higher in the attack and be more of a creative attacking force for us," said Simonson. "He's been a real dominant force in our possession game but we want to see if he can boss the ball higher up the field."

Hall, a third-year player and one of UNBC's top backliners, drew a yellow card in Friday's game and will have to serve a one-game suspension Saturday.

MacFarlane, one of a handful of Prince George minor soccer products, played both games last weekend but Simonson says he won't hesitate to put Rob Goodey of Langley in net against UBC this weekend.

"We had Ty Venhola last year and neither Rob nor Mitch really played," said Simonson. "Mitch was good last weekend but I think there was a couple he'd like to have back. I have a lot of confidence in him but I also have confidence in Rob should we need to go with him."

Midfielder Braeden Rake of Prince George, 20, is coming off a torn ACL and is still not ready to play but his twin brother Jesse, a first-year defender, has earned a spot on the 18-player roster and he's been a pleasant surprise.

"His growth has been unbelievable, he's clearly one of our most improved, and I don't mean that in a patronizing way," said Simonson. "He's really done a good job of putting himself right into the mix with this team."

Edzerza, another homegrown player, is back with the T-wolves after one year away from the team and he's showing his considerable ability up front. Roger Wheatcroft, Alex Nielson and Liam Stewart (Owen's older brother) are the other locals on the UNBC roster.

UNBC went 2-2 in the preseason and Solmonson likes what he's seen out of his players so far.

"I'm so proud of these guys I am for all the work they've put in since I got here 12 months ago," he said. "I've seen incredible changes in them.

"Everybody wants to see results and I do believe it's coming but the reality is when you watch them they're a much improved team and they're going to turn some heads."

The UNBC women get their regular season started next Friday at home against the University of Winnipeg Wesmen.