T-wolves off to a great start

It was Ty Venhola’s 23rd birthday Sunday and instead of receiving presents, he gave out gifts to his UNBC men’s soccer teammates.

Like the save he made on Thompson Rivers University WolfPack midfielder Brandon Mendez, with only about 17 minutes left and the T-wolves clinging to 2-1 lead over their U Sports Canada West Conference rivals.

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Venhola guessed right and dove across the crease just as the ball rocketed off the right foot of Mendez and the shot was absorbed by Venhola’s extended six-foot-three frame.

That was the best of a collected assortment of at least six game-savers Venhola made to hand the WolfPack (0-1-1) their first loss of a season.

“I was just trying to keep the ball out of the net, that’s a really good opponent and I’m really happy to get points off a rival,” said Venhola, back in the soccer fold after missing all of the 2016 season with a concussion.

“I think they’re a good team and I think they will challenge everyone in our conference and so I’m really happy with four points.”

The fifth-year goalie did get some help from his defencemen. Conrad Rowlands saved a goal 51 minutes in when he got his leg in front of a weak shot from Josh Banton that trickled behind Venhola and was rolling in. A couple minutes later, Gordon Hall used his head to deflect a labelled James Fraser shot. WolfPack midfielder Justin Donaldson took 10 shots and five of them were on net, but none went in. Venhola finished with 10 saves as the T-wolves were outshot 11-8. 

New UNBC recruit Stuart Rowlands put the T-wolves ahead with the first goal of the game, 22 minutes in, with a high shot in behind goalie Lubimir Magdolen, set up in front by Tofa Fakunle One of the few errors in judgement Venhola made came 35 minutes in when Mitchell Popadynetz ripped a low shot from just outside the box in off the goalie’s hands to tie it 1-1.

“He’s going to want their first goal back, it was a mistake and he knows it, but he made up for it in the second half for sure,” said T-wolves head coach Steve Simonson. “TRU deserves points today, there’s no question we stole the game from them. If we had lost that I would not have complained at all. They are a very solid, threatening team and they are definitely going to take lot of points off a whack of teams this year.

“I thought going into halftime we were going to lose that game resoundingly. We didn’t have the spirit and didn’t have the legs and we were up against it. To keep going against a team that was literally battering you for a little while, which they, were, I’m very happy for it. This is the start we want and to do it against a team like TRU is something to be proud of.”

Earning four of a possible six points in the two-game series was an excellent opening weekend for the T-wolves (1-0-1). Last season they had just one win and three points to show for their first seven games and went on to miss the playoffs, finishing last in the Pacific Division with a 4-10-2 record.

The winner came at the 63-minute mark on a free kick out of the corner from Dan Goodey. Goodey, a fifth-year defender from Langley, threaded a perfect cross over to Cody Gyspers, who got his forehead on it and deflected it in.

Once they had their lead, the T-wolves went into a 5-4-1 defensive formation and thanks to Venhola’s heroics in the crease they were able to stick with that strategy.

“We played the game we wanted to today and I really liked the effort they put in, but they ran into a hot goaltender,” said TRU head coach John Antulov, whose WolfPack roster includes eight international players. “We put them under a lot of pressure and they were able to withstand that pressure. We’ll learn from this.”

In Saturday’s season-opener against TRU, after a shaky opening quarter-hour the T-wolves dug in their heels and started defending their turf like junkyard dogs. They dominated the ball and that led to scoring chances as they came close to beating their Canada West Conference rivals from Kamloops. They had to settle for a 1-1 tie, but the T-wolves played well enough to win against a team that will host the U Sports men’s university soccer championship this fall.

Popadynetz gave TRU the lead 9:29 in, whipping a free kick past the outstretched hands diving Venhola. Hall fired in the equalizer for UNBC in the 63rd minute, set up by another corner kick from Goodey, who earned his first two U Sports assists on the weekend.

“I’ve been working on my set pieces all summer, I just thought it brings a little extra to the team,” said Goodey, a native of England. “We’ve recruited a few new boys this year who are a bit bigger and way better in the air. Stuart Rowlands is a big threat for set pieces and I think we’ve just got stronger as a team in the air.”

The T-wolves travel to Langley for games Friday and Saturday against the Trinity Western Spartans. The UNBC women host TRU in the season-opener Friday, Sept. 8 at North Cariboo Field.

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