Although an underdog, Lakehead women’s varsity soccer team makes history
Submitted photo The Lakehead University women’s indoor soccer team made history this week, earning the right to compete at the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) provincial championship later this month. The jubilant team is shown returning to the Orillia campus after qualifying for OCAAs. From left are Jessica Langille, Alana Rachner, Alyssa Bernardi, Shai Kemp, Madison Leigh, Kellie Parrott, Hayley Miskiw and Chauntelle Palmer. Team members not in the photo: Brooke Di Guilio, Dusti Szabo and Brianne Martin.
Against long odds, the Lakehead University women's varsity indoor soccer team made history this week, earning their first win and scoring a berth in the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) championship.
Playing at the OCAA Regional Tournament at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan, the Orillia squad opened action with a 2-0 loss against St. Clair College and then lost a hard-fought 2-1 battle against St. Lawrence Kingston. That set up a must-win game against Conestoga College and the Orillia squad came through, earning a well-deserved 4-3 victory.
"St. Clair College won all of their games and each of the other teams in the pool each won one game," said Neil Quinn, the athletics and recreation facilitator at Lakehead. "Because we had the best goals differential of the remaining three teams, we finished second and advanced to the provincials."
The victory over Conestoga was the first-ever win for a men's or women's varsity soccer team from the Orillia university. "We started a co-ed extramural team five years ago and last year was the first year for a varsity program," said Quinn. "To make it to provincials, which means we finish in the top 10 in the province is huge... it's a testament to how hard they've worked."
Quinn said it's also a testament to the dedication and leadership of Dustin Chung, who became the team's coach in November. "He played varsity soccer at the University of Toronto and has coached men's and women's varsity sports and worked with the U of T's development team. He's super positive and loves what he does. He deserves a lot of credit."
Chung had his work cut out for him. Last year, in the team's inaugural season, it was not uncommon for Lakehead to lose 14-0. "When I got here, their objective was they just wanted to score a goal," he said.
After meeting the players and learning their strengths, he "rearranged them into different positions" and taught them tactics while working to improve their soccer IQs. He also scheduled eight exhibition games in the GTA "because they had never played teams south of Barrie. They seemed to have a mental block around travelling to play, so that was a strategy to help them get over that."
It worked at the regionals in Vaughan. "That fear had vanished," he said. "This is the first group of players I've coached that can take instruction and put it immediately into action. Their capacity to learn was a huge upside."
While they improved tactically, one of his biggest challenges was rebuilding their confidence; this was a team that expected to lose. "I told them nobody judges you on yesterday. They judge you on the next step you take. And they really bought into that."
And when injuries took their toll and the team was down to just eight healthy players for the regional tournament - which featured three intense games within six hours - they did not use that as an excuse. Despite being weary and emotionally drained, the determined girls played their best game of the year when it mattered most.
Chung said the 4-3 win over Conestoga was a statement game for the team - especially its veterans. He singled out "absolutely phenomenal" goalie Jessica Langille, fourth-year player Shea Kemp and fifth-year player Brianne Martin, who "took that game into their hands and drove us to victory."
In the aftermath of the thrilling win, Chung said he "jumped 50 feet into the air and there were tears in the eyes of many of the players. It was my greatest coaching moment and I would say of all my moments playing soccer, it was my greatest soccer moment."
It's a win that merits some perspective. Unlike its rivals, Lakehead Orillia does not have a gym or practice facility. This season was the first season the team had a paid coach. On top of that, with less than 1,500 students, Lakehead is a David vs. Goliath. Conestoga College, for example, has about 9,300 full-time students, while St. Clair is home to more than 6,000 pupils and St. Lawrence College has about 7,000 students.
"I don't know if these girls really knew the odds stacked against them," said Chung, who ran practices in rented gyms at Patrick Fogarty, the YMCA and Georgian College. "We were lucky to train twice a week while most other teams trained four times a week. Some of these programs have been around for 20-25 years... that's why this is such an incredible achievement."
It's an achievement that is being noticed. After an exhibition game earlier this year, the opposing coach told Chung he didn't know Lakehead was in the OCAA. "People know who Lakehead Orillia is now," he said with pride. "My objective this year was to put Lakehead Orillia on the map. I think this win sent a signal throughout the soccer world that this team is here to stay and this program is here to stay."
Buoyed by that win and the confidence it has spawned, Chung hopes the team can continue its winning ways at the OCAA championship March 23-25 at Redeemer University College in Ancaster. Lakehead will be one of 10 teams competing.
"I'm very confident they'll compete and do well at provincials," said Chung. "Tactically, we'll hold our own against any team... but we're playing against the best in the province. I know it will be a great experience and memories will be made that will last forever. I'm just so happy for them, for the work they've put in. These girls are heroes to me."