Lexie Gillette had to wait for more than a year to step onto the field with the University of the Fraser Valley women’s soccer squad, and she’s spent this season making up for lost time.
The Chilliwack native has been a key contributor for a Cascade crew that started its playoff run Thursday night with a game vs the Lethbridge Pronghorns.
She is a long way from where she was last fall when she found herself without a soccer home.
Last summer, the Chilliwack secondary school grad was a happy member of the Kwantlen Polytechnic Eagles, prepping for another season in the PACWest conference.
Then, with barely a word of warning, the entire Kwantlen athletics program was put on ice, killed by money matters.
Gillette and her teammates found out in an email.
“We were a really close-knit group and it was a big hit to take,” she recalled. “The way it ended, it just happened super quick. We were just starting our preseason and we got the news.
“They let us have that final year and then that was it.”
Left without a team, Gillette approached UFV bench boss Rob Giesbrecht.
He’d coached her previously with the Abbotsford Mariners of the B.C. Soccer High Performance League, and was happy to give her a shot.
Gillette knew the step from PACWest to Canada West soccer would be big, and she admits she was intimidated the first time she practiced with the Cascades. In fact, it took quite a while before she felt like she belonged.
“The girls were nice, but they all knew each other so well and I came in at the end of their season,” she said. “Their practices were so high intensity and for the first month and a bit I felt like I wasn’t getting it.
“But around the third month in, I started making more of an effort to get to know everyone better, and once we started meshing better off the field it transfered onto the field.”
But not into games.
One of Gillette’s Kwantlen courses didn’t transfer to UFV, forcing her into academic red-shirt status for an entire season. All she could do was watch from the sidelines and fight the urge to run out onto the field.
Looking back, she said it wasn’t the worst thing.
“I was itching to play in practice and I had to watch every game, which was pretty rough,” she said. “But overall I think it was good for me because I got a bird’s eye view of what it was like to play at that level before I stepped into it.
“It was super high paced, super intense and a drastic change from PACWest soccer.”
Gillette finally stepped onto the pitch in early September against the University of British Columbia. The Thunderbirds are an annual contender for national crowns and she was excited to finally prove herself.
“I wanted to show that I could play at this pace, prove what I was capable of and make sure Rob knew I could hold my own,” she said. “We didn’t win but we had a real good game. It just happened that they finished their chances and we didn’t finish ours.”
More a playmaker than a finisher, Gillette impressed the coach with her vision, creativity and play in the middle third of the park.
“Going back to her youth-level days you could always tell that Lexie was gifted with her technical ability and her understanding of how the game is played,” Giesbrecht said. “It was just a matter of transitioning to the speed and intensity of U-Sports soccer.
“She’s definitely surprised us and become a larger factor for our team than we expected.
“I’m quite proud of the progress she’s made.”
If Gillette has a weakness, it’s finishing around the net.
In practice, she says she’ll bury eight out of 10 chances, but it hasn’t transfered to games where she still searches for her first U-Sports goal.
“I’m not the best at taking people on, but I’m working on it and I can slip by here and there,” she said. “We played TRU a week or two ago and I probably had four chances. One went just wide. Another was a volley off a cross where the goalie just got there.
“There was another volley that hit the inside of the back post and came back out. I’m just itching to score.”
The day she puts the ball in the net, her teammates will be just as happy as she is.
“It’s a pretty big topic of conversation for the team,” she laughed. “They’re all egging me on to score a goal.”
Goal or no goal, no doubt remains that she belongs at this level, and with two more years of eligibility left, the 21 year old believes the best is yet to come.
“I think I’m past the doubts now and deserve to be here,” she said. “Now it’s making sure I work hard to get more minutes so I can keep improving.”