The Capilano Blues men’s soccer team will be sharing an odd fascination for the next week: constantly checking and re-checking the weather forecast for Fort McMurray, Alta.
That great northern Canadian city will be the host site for the 2016 CCAA national men’s soccer championships where the Blues are headed after winning the PacWest soccer title for the second straight season with a 4-2 win over Douglas College Saturday in Burnaby.
With their return trip to nationals sewn up – the Blues finished second at last season’s CCAA championships – the Capilano crew has already started weather watching.
“I have been looking at it for sure,” said head coach Paul Dailly with a laugh when asked about the Fort McMurray forecast. At the time of this writing it was -5 C and snowing, but the long-range trend looked warmer and sunnier. “It’s changed daily quite a bit. I don’t know what to expect, to be honest. Ideally it’ll be above freezing, but who knows. We’ll expect the worst and if it’s not that bad, it’s not that bad. It’s the same for both teams – we’ll just go about our business like we’re playing at home.”
The Blues won their way back to nationals with a dominant performance in PacWest play, capping off an undefeated regular season with a pair of emphatic wins at the provincial tournament. The onslaught started early in Friday’s semifinal against Quest University, as a free kick from midfielder Edris Najm made it 1-0 just three minutes into the game. High-scoring striker Keith Jackson made it 2-0 before the game was 15 minutes old.
Quest never quit, however, scoring near the end of the first half and again in the second, but the Blues responded each time, with Jackson getting his second to make it 3-1 in the 50th minute and Adam Logan scoring eight minutes later to make it 4-1. Omar Rostant ended the barrage with a free kick in the 77th minute to make it a 5-2 final.
“We didn’t make it overly easy on (ourselves), but in the end it was a job well done,” said Dailly. “We ended up scoring five goals on the day – any time you score five goals, you better win the game.”
The championship final followed much the same script, as Najm again opened the account, this time just two minutes into the game. The rookie, a graduate of Burnaby’s Byrne Creek secondary, did all of his damage in the first five minutes of each game, but was a key player all weekend, said Dailly. For his effort Najm earned the tournament’s top midfielder award.
“He’s a great player, very gifted and really composed for his age. He just settled everything down in the midfield and made some tremendous decisions. He can score goals too.”
The super-strike combo of Jackson and Kristian Yli-Hietanen then blasted in goals three minutes apart to put the Blues up 3-0 less than 30 minutes into the game. The Blues did face a threat in the first half but it didn’t come from their opponents – fog rolled in early on and hung over the field for much of the half, threatening to delay or even cancel the contest.
“It was pretty bad,” said Dailly. “It got to the point where we were on one side and you could definitely make out that there were bodies on the other side but you couldn’t make faces out. … The fourth official said if we can’t see the far end we’re going to have to call the game. Off to such a good start, I thought, ‘Man, please – just praying for the fog to lift and the game to continue.’”
By the start of the second half the fog rolled out and the Royals rolled in, potting two quick goals to make it 3-2 despite losing a man to a red card. The game turned again, however, when Douglas College lost another player to a red card followed almost immediately by Jackson scoring his fourth of the tournament to make it 4-2, which held up as the final score.
“Credit to (Douglas) – with 10 men they battled back and got it to 3-1. We made a mistake defensively and then right away it was 3-2,” said Dailly. “It was definitely a little nervy. It was a situation we shouldn’t have been in for sure. … I was happy with how we responded. We didn’t quit, we didn’t stop believing in ourselves and what we were doing and we answered back right away.”
The Blues have had a lot of success over the years, but this is the first time they’ve won back-to-back provincial titles since Capilano claimed four straight from 1988 to 1991.
“It feels great,” said Dailly. “I’m happy for the group of guys, I’m happy for Dev Woolley of course – our fifth-year captain and such a leader on and off the field. We’ve just got a tremendous group this year, I’m just happy for the guys. They put in a lot of work all season long and put up with me and I’m glad that they were rewarded.”
Fourth-year defender Nicolas Morello, a St. Thomas Aquinas grad, took home the tournament’s MVP award. Morello set up the first three goals of the final, including the opener with one of his patented long throw-ins which was flicked on by Yli-Hietanen and finished off by Najm. Morello is an unflappable defender who can also be deadly on attack, said Dailly.
“It was great to see him finally get recognized for his work all season long,” he said. “He’s been rock solid all year defensively for us and any time your right fullback can join in and be a weapon on the attack side of things, it’s a great luxury to have as a coach. … He’s kind of one of those guys who doesn’t get a lot of accolades through the years because he’s so good at what he does – he’s a defender but he loves to get forward and attack.”
Jackson also earned some hardware, claiming the tournament’s top forward award.
“Keith just keeps doing what Keith does,” said Dailly. “He’s not the most clinical guy you’ve ever seen in front of goal but he’s got a nose for the net and if you give him enough opportunities he’s going to make you pay for sure. He’s been doing it all year long for us – him and Kristian are quite a strike force for us up there.”
The Blues will face Charlottetown’s Holland College Hurricanes to open the national championships Nov. 9 in Fort McMurray. The same two teams met to open the tournament last year with the Blues earning a tough 3-2 win. Capilano is ranked No. 2 in the country coming into the tournament, just behind their cross-country rivals from Humber. If the tournament goes according to plan, those two powerhouses would meet again in the final.
“It’s always in the back of the mind, but you can’t overlook any game,” Dailly said about getting a chance to face Humber again. “We’ve got a job to do against Holland. They’ve got a couple of really good players on that team that we saw last year – we need to eliminate them first and foremost.”
This year the Blues will have the motivation of erasing last season’s disappointment. The Blues looked poised to take the national title in 2015 after Humber lost two players to red cards in the first half of the final, but Capilano couldn’t capitalize and the Hawks eventually won in a shootout following a 0-0 tie.
“That bittersweet ending to last year’s season has been in a lot of guys’ minds and they want to rectify the situation this year,” said Dailly. “It was a good season. Everybody was trying to tell me it was a great year, but I was thinking it was a great year but it could have been so much better if we had just won that last game. We were right there. That was part of the problem too – we knew as a group we could have and should have beaten Humber on the day, and just didn’t.”
Now they have a second chance and are hoping to make the most of it.
“I’m confident going in,” said Dailly. “The guys have to be confident, the way they’ve played all season long. That won’t change – we’re a confident group. We’re not an overconfident group though – we definitely know we’ve got some work ahead of us and some areas of improvement. We’ll look at that this week of practice and we’ll get ‘em going, ready to go for next week.”
• • •
The Blues men also scored well in the PacWest regular season awards, with Dailly claiming coach of the year honours and Jackson, Woolley and goalkeeper Hudson Nelles all earning all-star status. Jackson won the PacWest scoring title, notching 11 goals in 12 games.