Had they been able to play soccer last year, UNBC Timberwolves women’s team might have set the bar higher than any of predecessors since UNBC joined the Canada West conference in 2012.
The pandemic took care of that notion and rocked the foundation of a team that was unquestionably the best assortment of talent head coach Neil Sedgwick has ever had to work with in four years at the helm.
Building off two consecutive playoff seasons, the extent of that unproven promise will never be known and Sedgwick now finds himself facing the new season with half his roster (21) made up of first-year players who have never played at the U SPORTS level.
This afternoon in Victoria (5 p.m. start), that new-look T-wolves team will line up to face the University of Victoria Vikes, knowing they still have holes in lineup that could not be filled over the course of that lost season. That obviously puts the T-wolves at a competitive disbalance against the bigger schools that have managed to retain their senior players.
“Many of the programs are in a similar situation where they have large rosters right now because of the unknowns of the past year but also the unknowns of where their student-athletes will be in the next few years with regard to when they will graduate and who will stay their full four or five years,” said Sedgwick.
“So we might be the youngest team in B.C. this year, which is an exciting challenge.”
From the time the 2019 season ended in October 2019 until late this summer, all the T-wolves did was train at the Northern Sport Centre while health regulations continued to rule out competition. But all that practice wasn’t wasted time.
“They’ve done exceptionally well getting up to speed,” said Sedwick. “We have good fortune that our young players, many of them had last year at least in the environment they were comfortable coming into the preseason, and that helped with their transition this season.
“We know the teams that typically represent Canada West at U SPORTS championships are typically third-, fourth-, and fifth-year players, so we’re up against it, but I think the players are ready for the opportunities. We had some real difference-makers in the program while they were here but they left a strong legacy that the players in the program now will continue to build upon.”
One of the irreplaceable cogs of that team that squeaked into the playoffs in 2019 is defender Mara McCleary. The Canada West second-team all-star was a force keeping the UNBC crease clear until she graduated last spring and she won’t be back for her fifth season of eligibility. Forwards Sofia Jones, one of the top goal-scorers in the league in 2019, and Paige Payne of Kitimat are also gone without fulfilling their senior years.
On the bright side, striker Monika Johnson (nee Lavarsky) will certainly take up some of the scoring slack. The 25-year-old Surrey native was a dominant player for three seasons with the Fraser Valley Cascades, collecting 23 goals and 36 points, including a 10-goal season in 2016 before she left the university ranks. She’s come to Prince George to study nursing and her presence as a finisher could work wonders for the overall health of the T-wolves.
“Monika finished her career at Fraser Valley as an All-Canadian and had a fantastic career there and we’re fortunate she’s with us because she does add a different dimension,” said Sedgwick. “She’s very powerful, aggressive and she really has that eye for goal. She doesn’t hold back, she’s very direct and I think she will be a handful for most defenders.”
Midfielders Hannah Emmond and Kierstin Vohar, both products of the Prince George Youth Soccer Association are among eight fourth-year T-wolves this season. Emmond had two goals in 2019 and she forms a leadership group that includes Johnson, defenders Hallie Nysted, and Mikaela Cadorette , forward Sonja Neitche and the returning goaltending tandem from Squamish , Brooke Molby and Madison Doyle.
Kiana Swift and Sarah Zuccaro, both midfielders, are returning for their third year as T-wolves. The other returning players from that 2019 squad are strikers Claire Turner and Robyn Zinkan and defenders Sarah Lepine and Kenzie Chilcott.
Among the rookies are central defenders Avery Nystedt and Jaslin Mandaher, who will both get the start this afternoon in Victoria, and German-born-and-raised midfielders Katharina Weltz and Tabia Ziemke. First-year goalie Brityn Hinsche of Williams Lake might not see much game time this year, ranked third on the depth chart behind Molby and Doyle, but there’s a good chance Prince George freshmen Morgan Holyk and Sohanna Bains will see the field in 2021. Another new ‘Wolf to watch is forward Anna Kaied, who transferred to UNBC after two seasons in the Pacific Western Athletic Association with the Langara Falcons.
The T-wolves played nine preseason games, starting in mid-August, and Sedgwick said they established a noticeable trend during that time on the field.
“In think that, different from in the past, our attacking play is very mobile,” said Sedgwick. “There’s a lot of interchange between the players and that’s been exciting for the players and hopefully it’s exciting for fans.”
Prince George soccer fans will get their first look at this year’s team next Friday at Masich Place Stadium when the T-wolves host the Trinity Western Spartans in the first of a two-game weekend set.