Masich move puts UNBC soccer on firm ground

Both UNBC Timberwolves soccer teams are poised for a move to the synthetic turf of the revamped Masich Place Stadium and that change should wipe away worries about unsafe field conditions in the fall season.

It will also help keep the teams from blowing their travel budgets.

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Last year's mid-October snowfall left the North Cariboo fields too wet to play for the UNBC men in a critical end-of-season match against the Fraser Valley Cascades. The T-wolves were forced to postpone the game and fly the next day to Abbotsford to play the game two days later than scheduled - an unexpected $15,000 trip.

The same weather woes hit the women's team in October 2016 when it snowed on Friday, two days before a Sunday game, and the contest was moved to Kelowna. Last year, the women didn't take a chance on braving the weather in Prince George in October and played their final eight regular-season games on the road.

That uncertainty about getting firm footing on their playing surface has been alleviated with the pending move to Masich.

"It's a necessity to have a turf option, for sure," said T-wolves men's team head coach Steve Simonson. "The men have had to move twice in the last couple of years. Two years we played home games on four different grass fields just trying to find one that was good enough to play on because of the weather."

Simonson said the teams are looking forward to playing in front of an elevated fan base, with people watching the games from under a covered grandstand.

"The (North Cariboo) clubhouse field is really unique in its own way and we'll miss that intimacy of how close everyone sits on the sidelines for the game," said Simonson.

"But I do think from an event standpoint it could be very special at Masich. I think a stadium feel is a neat feel for the guys, especially for night games with the lights.

"A brand-new surface is nice as well. Obviously a great grass field is what you want, but playing on turf is good because of the quickness. I think it will be good for us - we're a team that can pass the ball well and that will help us."

UBC and Trinity Western are now the only B.C. schools in Canada West that have their teams playing on real grass. Just one of UNBC's eight road games, in Saskatoon, is on a natural surface.

T-wolves women's team coach Neil Sedgwick toured Masich Place Stadium a couple weeks ago and was impressed with the progress of the $4.375-million project, which began last May.

"The city has done such a wonderful job of putting that stadium together," said Sedgwick. "They've done a great job with the bleachers and getting a stadium feel for us."

The turf is built on sand for improved drainage and the long grass blades are covered with tiny bits of rubber, which better absorbs the shock of a fall.

"The turf is a great surface and it will suit the way we want to play and it's good for the athlete's body, which is important," said Sedgwick. "The old-style Astroturf was much harder on the body and this is a brand-new turf that has loads of cushioning underneath and if it's maintained it will be a great surface for playing. There's so much research gone into turf surfaces the last 20 years and they've changed them a lot. There's now international soccer and international rugby games being played on turf."

Sedgwick said the Masich turf will likely allow his team to get outdoors much earlier and that could lead to spring exhibition games for the Timberwolves.

"A turf field just allows you to play deeper into the year," he said. "We're excited to get on it and train. We'll have more night games."

In fact, the synthetic surface could potentially bring the U Sports national soccer championships to Prince George. Played in late November, cold weather could be a problem, but if it snows, it can be removed from the field using motorized equipment, which would not work on natural grass fields. Simonson pointed out that last year's men's nationals were played in Kamloops and there was snow that was brushed off to the sidelines.

"Are we any more cold than the East Coast? Probably not," said Simonson. "With TRU hosting last year and UBC hosting this year, it might be awhile before it comes out west again but you never know. I think it would be a great experience if we could do it."

Last year's U Sports women's soccer nationals were played indoors in Winnipeg.

Masich Stadium is expected to re-open in mid-June. Most of the remaining tasks are related to the rubber surfaces needed to complete the track and field jumping and throwing facilities. Still in the works are locker-room renovations and installation of video equipment and connections for Canada West internet broadcasts and for instructional purposes for the coaches.

The 2017 soccer season was history-making for UNBC as both teams made the playoffs for the first time since they joined the Canada West conference in 2012.

The UNBC women improved from a last-place 0-12-1 finish in 2016 and ended up sixth with a 3-7-4 record, losing their quarterfinal playoff game 3-0 to Calgary. The men jumped from a 4-10-2 sixth-place result and wrapped up 2017 with a 4-4-6 fourth-place regular-season finish. They lost 3-0 in the quarterfinals to Alberta.

Both teams start training for a 16-game season on Aug. 1. Six UNBC men's team players have graduated but the majority of last year's team will be back. The T-wolves' season-opening games are Aug. 24-25 at Masich - back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday nights against the Victoria Vikes.

"Recruiting's going well, we have a good squad and I'm really excited about the returners and new players," said Simonson. "We have a team that really is optimistic right now. We're quite happy with what we've got."

The women play a 14-game schedule, starting on the road, Sept. 7-8, at UBC Okanagan and Thompson Rivers University. They host Regina and Saskatchewan at Masich on Sept. 14 and 16.

Just two of UNBC's seven away games, Trinity Western and Calgary, are on natural surfaces.

The women lost nine players to graduation from last year and will have 17 back from last year.

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