Striker Carly Neeson (17) is among the players being counted on to boost their production this season for the UFV women’s soccer team.

Cascades carry high hopes into new Canada West soccer season

As the University of the Fraser Valley women's soccer team plots a return to the Canada West playoffs, the goal is, well, more goals.

As the University of the Fraser Valley women’s soccer team plots a return to the Canada West playoffs, the goal is, well, more goals.

In 2010, the Cascades staged a memorable breakthrough, winning the Canada West title and a bronze medal at CIS nationals. During the regular season, they racked up 34 goals, second-most in the conference.

But in 2011, the UFV women saw their goal-scoring output plummet to just 13 in 14 regular-season games, and they missed the playoffs altogether with a 3-8-3 record.

“Pretty much everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” Cascades head coach Rob Giesbrecht said, reflecting on 2011. “We lost games where we had 20 corners to their one. It was just crazy, but that’s soccer. You have to be prepared for it, and you have to be prepared to face adversity.”

As they embark on a new Canada West campaign this week, the Cascades’ ability to deal with adversity is already being tested. Sophomore midfielder Mackenzie Shopland, perhaps UFV’s best all-around player, went down with a suspected ACL tear during a recent exhibition game at Portland State.

Between Shopland’s absence, however long it may be, and the graduation of last year’s leading scorer Megan Webster (five goals in 2011), much of the scoring load will fall to veteran strikers Carly Neeson and Danika Snook, along with midfielder and team captain Chelsea Steffen.

But it’s the performance of the youngsters which will determine the Cascades’ level of success. Two-thirds of the roster is comprised of freshmen and sophomores, and Giesbrecht started six rookies during a recent scrimmage against SFU. Among the key contributors will be defenders Sam Ricker and Tristan Corneil, midfielder Kara Delwo, and striker Danica Kump.

“We’re very young, but we’ve improved the overall athleticism and depth, and we’re quite excited about that,” Giesbrecht noted.

“You never want to say you’re in a rebuilding phase, because you don’t want to take the focus off accomplishing this year. On the day, we’re capable of beating anybody, I honestly believe that. My hope is, we can put it together game by game this season.”

In goal, fifth-year veteran Chantelle Biagioni will carry the load, backed up by rookie Kayla Klim, a product of the Whitecaps Girls Elite program. Biagioni has been exceptional in the preseason, allowing just one goal.

“She’s hungry to finish off her university career with a solid season,” Giesbrecht noted.

UFV MEN AIM FOR BREAKTHROUGH

The burning question for the UFV men’s team is, is this the year they finally break through and earn a playoff berth?

Heading into their seventh CIS season, the Cascades men have yet to taste Canada West post-season play. They’re coming off a tough 2011 campaign, when they finished tied for last in the conference (1-11-2) with a youthful roster.

But head coach Alan Errington is heartened by the fact that the road to the playoffs is easier this season thanks to a format change. The Canada West men’s soccer league has been divided into two divisions, Pacific and Prairie, and three teams from each will qualify for the post-season. Previously, there were only four total playoff berths available.

“In the playoffs anybody can win, but it’s been making the playoffs that’s been a struggle for us,” noted Errington, whose Cascades will play in the Pacific Division with UBC, UVic, Trinity Western and Canada West newcomer UNBC.

“But I think this year, it’s the strongest we’ve been.”

The Cascades are bringing back a core of veterans that includes strikers Craig Robinson and Sasa Plavsic, right back Colton O’Neill and keeper Mark Village. Connor O’Neill, Colton’s twin brother, returns after missing all of last season with a concussion.

Among the key newcomers are midfielder Justin Sekhon, winger Cole Almond, striker Dalibor Plavsic (Sasa’s brother) and centre back Cam MacKinnon. MacKinnon figures to make an instant impact – the Abbotsford product played for the national U17 team and then at SFU before returning home to UFV.

“He really makes a difference at the back,” Errington noted.

Errington has also added Colin Miller to the staff as an assistant coach. The former Abbotsford Soccer Association head coach has held assistant coaching positions with Derby County of the English Premier League and with the MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps.

“He’s probably the best signing of the whole lot,” Errington said with a chuckle. “He’s such a good coach, and we work very well together. It’s frightening – we say almost the exact same thing to the players. They joke about it.”

CHILLIWACK IS CASCADES’ HOME BASE

The UFV soccer teams are calling Chilliwack home this year, moving their home games from Abbotsford’s Bateman Park to Exhibition Field.

A major impetus was the ability to schedule home games in the evening. Exhibition Field is a 2,000-seat stadium with lights, whereas the Bateman Park pitches had limited seating and were unlit.

The move allows UFV to market games to youth soccer teams who are often playing games of their own on weekend afternoons.

“It might get us a few more people coming to watch,” Errington noted. “It’s a beautiful grass field.”

The UFV women’s soccer team hosts Canada West newcomer Mount Royal on Friday, Sept. 7, and the Alberta Pandas on Saturday, Sept. 8. Both games begin at 5 p.m. at Exhibition Field.

The UFV men open on Sept. 14 against UBC (7:15 p.m., Exhibition Field).

Striker Craig Robinson will be one of the chief offensive threats for the UFV men’s soccer team. (Tree Frog Imaging photos)

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