Coach Pawar's departure will leave hole in soccer community

Sonny Pawar has left his footprints all over Prince George soccer. As he prepares to begin a new chapter in his life, the city he has called home for almost all of his 48 years owes him a rather large thank-you.

Not that Pawar ever did what he did so he could be on the receiving end of accolades. For him, serving as a soccer coach was - and continues to be - a deeply-held passion. Ask him, and he'll tell you he was fortunate to be in a position to advance the game in a community he loves.

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Pawar will be heading for Victoria in early August to join his wife, Deborah, who has been there since January working a new job as a provincial government consultant in the area of youth and family mental health. When Pawar departs (along with 11-year-old son Kiran), he will leave behind hundreds - perhaps thousands - of players who have directly benefited from his tutelage. Many of them were part of the men's program at UNBC, while others became Pawar proteges through involvement in the Prince George Youth Soccer Association or the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Northern Academy Centre.

At UNBC, Pawar's influence wasn't just felt on a player-by-player basis. He was also a key figure in the development of the program itself, which broke into the B.C. Colleges Athletic Association with a 2006 exhibition season and gained full entrance the following year. Now, with Pawar firmly entrenched as one of its builders, the program is on the cusp of its fourth season in Canadian Interuniversity Sport, which offers the highest level of post-secondary competition in the country.

Pawar was the first and only head coach of the UNBC men's team throughout its residency in the BCCAA, a time period that - including the exhibition season - stretched for six years. While in the league, the Timberwolves squads grew in strength thanks to Pawar's recruiting and coaching efforts. The T-wolves made the playoffs for the first time in 2009 (1-0 loss to the defending national champion Capilano Blues) and, the next year, shocked all observers by winning playoff silver. During that remarkable run, the Timberwolves downed Capilano 1-0 in the quarterfinals and then pulled off a monumental upset in the semifinals when they beat the Douglas College Royals - ranked No. 1 in Canada at the time - 2-1. UNBC settled for silver after a 3-0 loss to the Vancouver Island University Mariners in the final.

Pawar's fine job in developing UNBC men's soccer at the provincial college level helped make the program a viable entry into the CIS in 2012. At that point in time, a full-time coach had to be found and Pawar didn't want to walk away from his career with School District 57. When Alan Alderson was hired, one of Alderson's first calls was to Pawar, who gladly agreed to stay on as an assistant coach. Pawar remained an assistant all the way through last season.

Alderson, whose resignation was announced this week as he pursues a new opportunity, holds Pawar in high regard.

"I wanted to grab the best soccer coach available in the city," Alderson told The Citizen in April. "I knew we had a good connection. We think in a similar fashion on a lot of things.

"I wanted to carry on the traditions and values that Sonny had started, into Canada West."

Organizations like the PGYSA and the Whitecaps FC Northern Academy Centre also recognized Pawar's credentials as a coach when they secured his services. Twice, Pawar took on the role of interim technical director with the PGYSA and he was far and away the best choice to lead the Whitecaps program when it expanded into Prince George in 2013.

In short, Pawar's impact on soccer in Prince George can't really be quantified. Even away from the field, he made a difference because he understood the importance of promoting the game. Whether he was in UNBC green or was working on behalf of the PGYSA or the Whitecaps, Pawar was always available to local media outlets, including this newspaper. He never ducked an interview request or a phone call - not even once. And he regularly picked up the phone himself to share whatever soccer-related news he had.

Not surprisingly, Pawar already has soccer duties awaiting him in Victoria. As soon as he arrives, he'll help lead a camp put on by Neil Sedgwick's Epic Soccer Academy, which has formed a partnership with the Whitecaps. Other soccer people - including Andrew Latham (head coach of the Lower Island Soccer Association) and University of Victoria head coach Bruce Wilson - have also been in contact with Pawar.

"I've had lots of propositions and opportunities to start working immediately but to be honest I'm actually looking forward to just getting there and trying to figure out where we're headed as a family before I jump into too much," said Pawar, who grew up playing the game in Prince George and later suited up for the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary. "I'm looking forward to a bit of downtime."

Of course, Pawar still has the option to work within the school system but he'd like to pursue a career in soccer more seriously. In December, he will start working on getting his national A license as a soccer coach. Upon completion of that two-year program, he will be qualified to lead teams at the national and international levels.

Ultimately, Pawar's future may lie with the Whitecaps, who compete in North America's pro league, Major League Soccer. The Whitecaps have made it clear to Pawar they want to keep him involved in their organization.

"If I continue to climb the ladder with the Whitecaps club, more than likely that could only occur from the Mainland," he said.

And that's the beauty of wife Deborah's new job: "Because it's a consultation position, when we first got into negotiating the position, there were opportunities for her to be able to work in various places," Pawar said. "So we talked to her employer about the possibility of her working from the Mainland in the position that she's in now."

Whatever happens, Prince George and its soccer community will miss Pawar.

But, when he leaves city limits, he deserves to ride out on a wave of support and best wishes.

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