Heading into his fifth season at the helm of UNBC Men’s soccer, Coach Steve Simonson’s roster possesses just one fifth-year player, but has the depth and potential to reach new heights in the 2019 Canada West season.
The Timberwolves graduated ten players in 2018. Losing such a significant crop of contributors could potentially derail a program, but Simonson has long preached a next-man-up mentality. In his time at UNBC, the roster has generally hovered around 30 players, with a culture focused on an egoless, welcoming training and team environment. Every athlete is as important as any other, which has created a comfort in continuity heading into this season.
“We are getting to the point, as a program, where we have good players on the bench and good players not making the 18. That depth, especially later in the season when bodies are getting worn down, will give us an opportunity to push towards what we want.”
That said, there are substantial questions leading into the year. That suits Simonson just fine, because he knows there is an answer to every question facing this team. Centreback Gordon Hall, a Canada West First Team All-Star in 2018, is gone, as is his running mate Conrad Rowlands, who suited up in more career games than anyone in the history of the conference. Midfielder Francesco Bartolillo, who finished as UNBC’s all-time leader in goals scored, now serves as an assistant coach since graduating. The program also bid farewell to Josh McAvoy, Manny Drame, Matt Jubinville, and Liam Stewart, among others.
“We lost ten key components of our team, both as players and as individuals. The culture of our team has been fantastic, and those guys are a big part of that. But, when you have that type of turnover, it provides opportunity. Opportunities for players coming in, and opportunities for players who have been biding their time. Those guys will be missed, but we are excited about what we are getting.”
The backline, in the absence of Hall, Rowlands, and Drame, is loaded with size and potential. Simonson has a number of options among those on the roster, with returners Aidan Way, Mitch Linley, James Stephens, Mason Lidbetter, Luke Brbot, and newcomers Demian Dron, Jake Dziwenka, Julian Daduica, and Dino Hronopoulos.
“We want defenders who can adjust and play the way we need to play on the day. That may mean as solid defenders, or good passers, back three, back four, or back five. I think we are close to that. Obviously we can’t replace the experience, but we do have a lot of ability and potential. To see how quickly they can get up to speed is exciting.”
The TWolves will be without the source of half their goal output from the 2018 season, but Simonson actually thinks that area could be improved this year. Owen Stewart is back, as are Michael Henman, Anthony Preston, and Abou Cisse, who all found the twine last year. Key distributors Joel Watson and Jonah Smith return, and they hope to get a boost from incoming transfers Hussein Behery and Kensho Ando, along with freshmen Gregor Smith, Noah Ballinger, and Reid Adams.
“In the front half of the field, we have a lot of depth. Probably more than we have ever had before. We don’t have to replace the departing players. We just need to have guys come in and put their own spin on things. There is a lot of exciting opportunity with the types of players we have here now, and I am intrigued to see how they do.”
Between the pipes, incumbent starter Rob Goodey is back, coming off an 83 save campaign in 2018. A tremendous shot-stopper, Goodey will be pushed by the young tandem of Daniel Zadravec and Alex Dorscheid, who are both physically gifted entering their first years of eligibility.
“I am very happy with our goalkeeping trio. Rob is experienced. He is such a key part of our team, stopping shots, but also playing the ball. Daniel and Alex, the future is so bright for them as young goalkeepers. They work really well together, and they train well together. It is an exciting prospect.”
With the 2017 and 2018 seasons serving as proof of a program on the rise, the Timberwolves hope to keep progressing. Last year, they set new highs in goals, wins, and points, but missed the conference playoffs because of a tiebreaker. Despite the disappointment, Simonson’s group is using it as fuel.
“They use the motivation of playoffs as a big thing. I am okay with those outcome goals. But all we can do is put forward the highest performance environment we can. Push each other to be as good as we can be. If we continue to do that, the program will continue to move towards the top level. Last year we didn’t make playoffs, yet had out best season ever, which doesn’t make sense because we have made playoffs in the past. More than these targets, there is an internal drive to push one another and keep getting better. This group has that attitude in abundance.”
With 17 players having graduated out of the program in the last two seasons, the TWolves roster is a potpourri of battle-tested and relatively inexperienced athletes. But, Simonson’s intentional culture has put the team in position to not skip a beat. The Timberwolves will travel to Victoria for preseason, before opening the Canada West season on August 23rd and 24that UBCO.