Mark Pennington will finally be fielding a team of his own when the TRU WolfPack women’s soccer squad returns to the pitch on Friday, Sept. 10, at Hillside Stadium.
The defending national champion UBC Thunderbirds — who have never lost to TRU — will provide opposition in the WolfPack’s first Canada West tilt since Oct. 20, 2019, a 4-0 loss to the Trinity Western Spartans in Langley.
“There’s no bigger test than that for opening day,” said Pennington, formerly an assistant coach for the Thunderbirds' women's soccer team. “We’re going to be really young and inexperienced, but with some really good players. If we can get their mindset right — if you’re good enough, you’re old enough is sometimes the saying.”
Pennington was hired in time for the 2019 campaign and inherited a team that was 7-30-4 in the three seasons prior to his arrival and 13-47-7 since joining U Sports in 2014, a span during which it compiled a minus-122 goal differential.
TRU, which finished the 2019 season with a record of 2-8-4, was 2-4-3 in its final nine games and in the playoff race until the final weekend of the season.
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in 2020, along with Pennington’s first recruiting class. League play last year was pre-empted by the virus crisis.
Pennington added eight new recruits in 2021, bringing to 16 the number of new faces that will be eligible to make their Canada West debuts against the T-Birds.
“Young girls bring good energy and intensity to practise,” said Rylee Mugridge, a second-year midfielder from Maple Ridge. “They’re eager, they’re ready to go and it’s competitive. These rookies are fighting for starting positions and that helps with the intensity of camp and training throughout the year.”
Hawan Abdissa is among the TRU first-year players who are not exactly rookies, part of the 2020 recruiting class that spent last year creating a foundation for the future.
“We focused on our growth as a team, building our program and getting to know how each other play, since we did have a lot of recruits last year, as well as this year,” said Abdissa, a winger from Calgary.
“I think we are up for the challenge. Going into that game [against UBC], we’re not going to think of any past results. We are a new team. We have a lot of new players.”
Camryn Curts made WolfPack history on Oct. 4, 2019, becoming the first TRU women's soccer player to notch a regular-season goal against UBC. The T-Birds dispatched TRU 2-1 at Hillside Stadium.
Curts is among the small group of veterans running with the Pack in 2021.
Recently imposed Interior Health restrictions do not allow for spectators to attend home-opening weekend, which includes a rematch against UBC on Sept. 11.
The WolfPack had big plans to make a spectacle of the weekend, which was to coincide with the institution's back-to-school barbecue, but those have been postponed.
Interior Health is expected to review its restrictions at the end of September. After home opening weekend, the WolfPack’s next home matches are slated for Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 against the Spartans.
“I’m really sad the fans can’t be here,” Pennington said. “They’re kind of our 12th man sometimes to push us through and make the atmosphere tough for our opponents. Disappointing on that front, but on the whole, we’re just excited to be back on the field.”
Pennington used practices, scrimmages and exhibition play in 2020 to introduce on-field tactics. Smoke from wildfires burning across the province wreaked havoc on the 2021 pre-season schedule, but work continued and players say the hurdles have aided culture building.
“It’s just so nice to be back,” Mugridge said. “The last year was so hard for athletes — any level, any age, any sport.
“There are still a few things we are fighting through — smoke, COVID, pandemic — but this team is resilient and we have to bounce back.”
The WolfPack women’s soccer team has reached the playoffs once, in 2015, when it was thumped 6-1 by UBC in Round 1.
Is there a bit more pressure on Pennington to produce victories this year, now that the roster is composed mostly of his recruits?
“Possibly,” he said. “I think I’ve still got a little bit of leeway and time here. It takes time to mould, but I’m really excited to see where we are.
“We’ll be young and naive, at times, but we’re hoping their quality, athleticism, ability and game sense kind of pulls them through.”