Soccer season starts two weeks earlier and the regular season will be four games longer in 2016 for the UNBC Timberwolves men's team.
The CIS released its 16-game schedule Wednesday and the T-wolves have Friday, Aug. 26 circled on their calendar.
That night, UNBC hosts the Trinity Western Spartans in the first of a weekend doubleheader at North Cariboo Field and T-Wolves coach Steve Simonson feels a lot better about his team's preparation plans than he did a year ago.
When Simonson took over the T-wolves in mid-August 2015, replacing head coach Alan Alderson on an interim basis, he had just three weeks to prepare his team for the season. He's now shed the interim tag and has had eight months to recruit reinforcements and explain strategies to try to improve a 1-10-1 team which finished last in the Pacific Division in 2015.
The UNBC men will play teams from the Prairie Division this season after sticking exclusively to Pacific Division opponents in 2015. The Saskatchewan Huskies travel to Prince George Sept. 16
and two days later the Winnipeg Wesmen travel to North Cariboo Field to take on the T-wolves.
"For variety I think it's great we get to play different schools and lengthen our season - we play four more games and we're excited about it, we all want that variety," said Simonson.
"The challenge of that is we start early, on August 26th, so that's less prep time. The tough part last year was just the change, the players were in a state of flux after being told their coach (Alderson) was leaving and there's always change when I new coach comes in and that was tough on the players.
"It didn't lead to (winning) results in the season but I thought there was a lot of growth and we expanded on that in the winter. They should be a lot more comfortable with what I've been asking. Is that going to lead to results? We don't know that, it's such a tough division, but we seem more familiar than when I took over."
UNBC also plays the U of C Dinos and Mount Royal Cougars in Calgary, Sept. 24-25. Both were Prairie Division playoff teams last season. The T-wolves will play eight of their 14 games at home, double the number of home games in 2015.
The T-wolves have been playing indoors throughout the off-season and have already played a few exhibition games in advance of the preseason schedule, which kicks of in early August. They've lost two players from last year -- midfielder Brett Bobier (who is red-shirting to focus on his nursing studies) and forward Brandon Wallace (transferred to Fraser Valley), but none were lost to graduation from the 2015 team, which consisted mostly of first- and second-year players.
UNBC forward Francesco Bartolillo and defender Gordon Hall are now in Arizona playing for Tucson FC of the Premier Development League, while UNBC striker Tofa Fakunle is also in the PDL, playing for Foothills FC of Calgary.
Simonson admits his young team will continue to experience growing pains taking on the established powers of Canada West Conference.
"We're looking at a program that's been around for four years in the CIS, versus teams that have been around 40 years or 20 years, so at the end of the day we should be a team that's finding our feet and learning how to play here and we're still in that building phase," said Simonson.
"I don't really worry about what other people think about where our program's going to be. What we can do is focus on how how we train, how we play, and our attitude towards everything we do and if we do that over time the results will begin to take form."
The preseason starts the second week of August with games against Thompson Rivers in Kamloops and UBC-Okanagan in Kelowna.
The UNBC women, under new head coach Neil Sedgwick (who took over from Andy Cameron in February) will play a 14-game schedule, same as last year. They'll open at home against Winnipeg on Sept. 9 and Manitoba on Sept. 11.
"Neil has gotten along with the team great, the whole team's dynamic has been awesome since he came," said Tianna Pius, a fourth-year centre midfielder from Prince George. "His coaching methods have really fed into what the team's goals and views are and it's kind of nice to have him pushing us to be better."
Like the men's team, there plenty of room for improvement. The UNBC women went 1-10-3 in 2015 and finished last in the West Division. Through graduation they've lost four players, goalie Jordan Hall, striker Sydney hall, midfielder Jo Ribeiro and defender Tanya Grob. Second-year player Lianna Toopitsin faces a mammoth task trying to fill the shoes of Jordan Hall, one of the top goalies in the conference last year.
Several of the T-wolves play together on Prince George FC, which is preparing for tournaments in Kamloops and Kelowna and all the UNBC team members have been following a training plan prepared by Sedgwick, which outlines in detail what they have to do daily to prepare themselves for the season, leading up to fitness testing on Aug. 7.
"He's getting us doing a lot of running, which is really good for us, cardio is always a good thing to work up," said Pius. "Neil gave us a sheet and we're more accountable to do it, it's more structured.
"I do believe (fitness) could have been a factor in a lot of games, especially against a team like UBC. We were really defensive that game (a 1-0 UBC loss to the eventual CIS champions last year in a game that was tied until the last four minutes). I think if we were a bit more fit we could have been more offensive."
The UNBC women begin the preseason against Quest University, Aug. 16 and 18 in Squamish.