According to men’s soccer head coach Charles O’Toole, the difference between last year’s ACAC bronze medal finish and a trip to the CCAA nationals boils down to a few moments.
“Basically, a 15-minute lapse in our semifinal game cost us that trip,” he recalled.
The game he is referring to, a 4-1 loss to the Lethbridge Kodiaks, knocked the Ooks out of national championship contention. The stellar success seen by the Ooks men’s soccer club over the past decade has left that semifinal loss resounding especially shrill in O’Toole’s head. The team’s bronze medal finish at provincials ended a five-year streak of national championship appearances.
O’Toole is confident his team can renew NAIT’s recent tradition of men’s soccer success. Standing between the Ooks and a return to the national stage, though, is what the head coach calls a “total rebuild.” Just five players – Sean O’Toole, Sebastian Cabrera, Julien Gonzales, Kais Hanna and Justin Esteves – are returning from last year’s squad. The rest of the team is still under construction, as tryouts are just wrapping up this week. One noteworthy addition is Geovanni Brovine, a Brazilian ESL student. The team will come together under a slightly different coaching staff. Former assistant coach Jordan Stewart has moved to the CIS, along with the Grant MacEwan Griffin athletics organization. Former Grande Prairie coach Chris Spaidal has been hired as his replacement.
O’Toole highlighted the potential and challenges that surround what he predicts to be a young men’s soccer team.
“A lot of these kids are coming right out of high school. College is a little bit of a different game. It’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for them.”
The Ooks do have one less team to worry about in this year’s bid for nationals. Host school Keyano College will automatically qualify for what is certain to be a chilly mid-November championship. For the Ooks, the road to nationals begins on Sept. 10 as they kick off their regular season at home against the Augustana Vikings.
The women, meanwhile, are looking to win just one more game than they did last year. After stampeding undefeated through the ACAC to capture the provincial title against the Concordia Thunder, the Ooks, who have failed to reach the national final only once since 2010, lost a heartbreaking second consecutive gold medal game to Quebec College FX Garneau Elans.
The female Ooks will also be debuting a largely new and young team in their opening match against Augustana on the 10th. Several key players are returning, including 2015 ACAC leading scorer Kayla Michaels but with the new crop of young talent comes an increased emphasis on physical conditioning, said head coach Carole Holt. Both the men’s and women’s games on Sept. 10 will take place on NAIT’s field.
The women’s match starts at noon, followed by the men at 2 p.m.
The next day, Sunday, the two teams take on Concordia in away matches.
– Connor O’Donovan, Sports Editor
Photo by Jesse Kushneryk