Their off-season training and exhibition schedule is behind them. The UNBC Timberwolves are now focused on what's in front, and their first challenge is a season-opening game tonight against the Trinity Western University Spartans.
The UNBC men's soccer team will take on Trinity Western at North Cariboo fields (7 p.m. start). Heading into the game, the Timberwolves are feeling good about themselves, based partly on the fact they posted a 3-2-1 record in pre-season action the past couple weeks.
"The results we take with a grain of salt in the pre-season because everyone's shopping and changing and looking at different things," said T-wolves head coach Steve Simonson. "Everybody takes them with a grain of salt but it was the performances through full games or big portions of games that we were really happy with. (We were) trying to see how some of the new players fit in, different ways that we're trying to play – so (it was) really successful. The mentality of the group is very, very strong right now. The team chemistry is very good so we're hoping we're moving in the right direction."
Simonson is in his second year at the helm of the UNBC men, while the program itself is into its fifth season in the Canada West conference of Canadian Interuniversity Sport. Last year, the Timberwolves finished in the basement of the seven-team Pacific Division with a 1-10-1 record and their overall mark since they joined Canada West in 2012 is 7-41-4.
Even though the program has had some time to build a foundation, Simonson said he won't measure success this season based on wins and losses.
"I think there's a danger in trying to define everything by an outcome," he said. "It's a process – it's a long process. The league has been around for many, many decades and our program has been around for four years – this is our fifth season. So for us to think that we have this right, just because we're here, to step up and be amongst the big dogs in the league, I don't think that's something we can just walk into and take for granted that we get that opportunity.
"For us, it's about the stepping stones and moving ourselves forward," Simonson added. "We do have some lofty outcome goals that we'd like to achieve this year, but we definitely will achieve them at some point in the future. But we have to focus on the process of getting there."
Offensively, the Timberwolves will be led this season by third-year midfielder Francesco Bartolillo and fourth-year midfielder/striker Tofa Fakunle. New additions poised to make an impact include midfielders Jonah Smith and Cody Gysbers, and defender Emmanuel Drame.
Bartolillo, from Calgary, regards the 2016 T-wolves as more mature than the 2015 squad. As well, most of the players have now had a full year of work with Simonson, which Bartolillo sees as a positive.
"We have grown as a group and are much better suited to handle adversity," he said. "I think we have fully adapted to our team's new style and systems of play which coach Steve has implemented.
"The players are much more comfortable playing in different roles and different systems depending on the situation and opposition."
Simonson is expecting a tough game against the Spartans, who went 5-5-2 last season and nabbed the fourth and final playoff spot in the Pacific Division.
"Last year we played them twice and the first game they were very dominant against us in the first half and basically won the game in the first half handily," he said. "The second game was a very good game. We rebounded, had the lead and were 1-1 until basically the last kick of the game when they broke on a counterattack and scored.
"We know they're a good team. They've lost a couple of key players (including defender Kalem Scott and midfielder Brayden Gant) and they've had a coaching change so, really, when that happens, it's an unknown. You don't know if they're going to play the same or how they're going to replace their big players. So we know they'll be good, we just don't know in what way so we'll do our video scouting and see what we can learn from them prior to our first game."
The Timberwolves and Spartans will also square off on Saturday, also at 7 p.m. at North Cariboo fields.
All Canada West men's soccer teams will play a 16-game regular season, up from 12 in 2015. The extra contests are the product of a format change that will see Pacific teams crossing over to face Prairie clubs. Prairie opponents for the Timberwolves are the Saskatchewan Huskies and Winnipeg Wesmen (Sept. 16 and 18 at home), and the Calgary Dinos and Mount Royal Cougars (Sept. 24 and 25 on the road).
The T-wolves will wrap up their regular schedule with an Oct. 22 road game against the Fraser Valley Cascades. The top four teams in each division will qualify for playoffs.
• The UNBC women's soccer team is still in the exhibition portion of its schedule. The Timberwolves will be in Edmonton today and Saturday for games against the MacEwan University Griffins and Thompson Rivers University WolfPack.
On Aug. 20 in Surrey, UNBC lost 7-0 to the UBC Thunderbirds.
In their regular-season opener, the T-wolves will host the Winnipeg Wesmen on Sept. 9. Two days later, they'll take on the visiting Manitoba Bisons.