Classes are about to get underway at the University of Victoria, but on the soccer field, school has been in session since early August.
Both men’s and women’s Vikes teams have been training nearly full-time for the last month, in preparation for their Canada West Conference openers next weekend.
“It’s been good. I’ve been very pleased with what we have,” men’s coach Bruce Wilson said. “Our plan has been to get a little bit better every day.”
The men, who made the Canada West Final Six last year, before being knocked out by Saskatchewan on a “horrible” frozen field in Edmonton, face a big test right from the get-go. They begin the regular season on Friday at home against the defending Canadian Interuniversity Sport champion UBC Thunderbirds. The T-Birds also topped Canada West in league play in 2012, followed by the Trinity Western University Spartans, who visit Centennial Stadium next Sunday. Two weeks later, the same two rivals make a return visit.
The women Vikes are back in action after finishing last season with a bronze medal, earned when UVic played host to the CIS championship. Coach Tracy David is looking for new leadership on the team, to replace graduating veterans such as Steph Parker, the Vikes’ No. 1 goalkeeper for the past five years.
“We have some shoes to fill, for sure, but it’s early days,” said David, whose team plays its first game on Saturday at Centennial Stadium, against the University of Northern B.C. “The players that graduated offer so much more than their playing experience — it’s their experience in the dressing room, and in big games. They know my expectations.
“Sometimes when your soul is gone, you’ve got to find your soul again.”
To help find that team identity, David will be counting on several talented players returning for their fourth or fifth years. Among them are forward Emma Greig, defender Brigitte Greig and midfielders Jaclyn Sawicki and Jackie Harrison — all Canada West all-stars last season. Sawicki was on the Under-20 national team and made the Canadian roster at the 2013 Summer Universiade in Russia in July. Both she and Harrison played with the Peninsula Co-op Highlanders this summer, while Greig finished her third season with the Canada West scoring title in 2012, netting 14 goals.
“That’s why this [pre-season] process is so important, because it allows for new people to come in and step up,” David said. “This is their time to shine and blossom and find their niche.”
The Vikes men also have a solid core group, mainly at the back end. Wilson is counting on a defence-first strategy, starting with fifth-year goalkeeper Elliot Mitrou. Mitrou backstopped the Victoria Highlanders to their first-ever appearance in the USL Premier Development League Final Four championship last month. He was also between the posts when the Vikes won the CIS crown in 2011. Keeping Mitrou company on defence are veterans Andrew Ravenhill, Gavin Barrett, Bobby Eng and Alex Redpath.
With the experienced group limiting the scoring opportunities for opponents, Wilson is planning to counterattack with front-liners such as Cam Hundal, Craig Gorman and Cam Stokes.
Ravenhill, Barrett, Gorman and Stokes were also on the history-making Highlanders side, and Ravenhill, Barrett and Hundal were all named Canada West all-stars last season.
“We have a lot of senior players leading the way as we move ahead, and some very good younger players to mix in,” Wilson said. “For our team, it’s a matter of how we play. Can we score the goals and keep the goals out?”
“I think we have a pretty good chance.”
The regular season schedule runs through the end of October, with the 11 teams in on the men’s side playing 14 games each, leading up to the Canada West Final Six.
Each team in the 13-team women’s division plays 12 games, with eight advancing to Canada West quarter-finals.
Come November, the men are hoping to book a trip to the CIS championship in Fredericton, N.B., while the women have their sights set on Toronto.