T-wolves escape smoky air for Victoria camp

The air is clear in Victoria.

In fact, it might be one of the last bastions of the province free of wildfire smoke.

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The fact the UNBC Timberwolves women's soccer team has set up shop in the B.C. capital home for a nine-day training camp they kicked off Monday was a stroke of fortuitous planning for Neil Sedgwick's young squad.

The T-wolves left behind their home in Prince George caught in the throes of of an unrelenting onslaught of smoke and ash caused by fires burning in the central and northwestern regions of the province, with no end in sight in the immediate future.

"It was a bit smoky here (Wednesday) but not bad, but today it's blue skies," said T-wolves head coach Neil Sedgwick.

The UNBC women played Wednesday in Victoria against the Victoria U-18 Premier League team, then split into two squads to face the top team from the Vancouver Island women's league in a two-game set. Today the T-wolves will play the Vancouver Island University Mariners, then will head to Sooke to put on a soccer clinic, followed by an exhibition match Saturday night with the Peninsula College Pirates of Port Angeles, Wash. On Monday they face VIU in a rematch, then travel to Surrey next Thursday to play the UBC-Okanagan Heat in back-to-back split-squad games.

"The focus is on development," said Sedgwick. "In nine days they'll get seven games, so plenty of time for the girls to train and put some of the early-weeks concepts into place."

Sedgwick is entering his third season and this will be the youngest team he's had in his time at UNBC. Coming off their first appearance in the playoffs in six years as a Canada West member, five T-wolves have graduated and four eligible players left for academic regions.

Seven first-year players and 10 sophomores are on the team. Just six of the team - fifth-year veterans Kylie Erb, and Madison Emmond, fourth-year Julia Babicz and third-year returnees Paige Payne, Ashley Volk and Mara McCleary - were there when Sedgwick was handed the coaching reins to replace Andy Cameron in 2016.

"I'm really happy with the progress we've made," said Sedgwick.

"We'll continue to try to keep the ball as much as we can but I think we have some exciting attacking players who have entered the program or grown within the program and it will be great to see how those pieces get put into place. Even though we've lost some key competitors we've made some good steps in the preseason to put a good group together."

In goal, Madi Doyle and Brooke Molby have shed their rookie tags and both stood up well to the test of trying to prevent some of the top teams in U Sports from scoring.

"It was great to give both of them some (playing) time last year and they both played in some big games," said Sedgwick. "When we drew with UBC, we had Brooke in and Madi was coming off an injury and in the second half we put Madi into the game. Both are doing exceptionally well in their second year of understanding what were trying to do as far as a team on the field."

The back line looks solid with McCleary, Erb, Babicz and Volk back for more. Emmond and Payne will be looked upon for leadership to keep order on the field and instigate rushes into the attacking zone.

Rookie midfielders Sarah Zuccaro (Nanaimo), Kiana Swift (Sooke), Jenna Wild (Victoria) and Kyra Wallace (Penticton), who sat out last year with a knee injury, will try to conjure some chemistry with freshmen forwards Sofia Jones (San Francisco), Robyn Zincan (Shawnigan Lake), and second-year striker Sonja Neitsch (Calgary). Scoring goals will be an onerous task for the T-wolves this season, as it was two years ago.

"I think that's an issue for everyone," said Sedgwick, who retained Jo Wankling and Wes Barrett as his assistant coaches. "Athletically, the league is getting better so people do a decent job of defending the goal.

"It's going to be difficult (making the playoffs again), we don't really talk about it and of course that's always the program's goal to do the very best and continue to grow on the field and see where that puts us at the end of the year. Every soccer player's goal is to win games and make playoffs but it's difficult. Every program is improving and I think the teams that have traditionally been at the bottom of the table - the Thompson Rivers and UBC-Os - are making huge gains. From top to bottom, it's getting closer."

Their season starts on the road at UNBC-O (Sept. 8) and TRU (Sept. 9). The T-wolves will play their first games on the field turf at Masich Place Stadium on Sept. 14 (Regina) and Sept. 15 (Saskatchewan).

The scheduled men's preseason game Sunday in Kamloops between the T-wolves and UBC-Okanagan Heat was cancelled due to poor air quality. Weather-permitting, the UNBC men open their season next Friday night at home against the Victoria Vikes.

The Prince George Soccer Association has cancelled some of its games the past month and will continue to do so if the air quality health index reading is seven or more. As of 3 p.m. Thursday the reading in the city was 10-plus, with forecast high of seven expected Thursday evening.

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