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That Sudbury Sports Guy: Laurentian soccer squads prepare for long-awaited return to pitch

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Far more than most years, there is a feeling of starting from a completely clean slate for both Laurentian Voyageurs’ soccer teams.

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If Carlo Castrechino and Brian Ashton and company were only dealing with the effects of the pandemic and a full year missed due to COVID-19, there would still be more questions than answers.

But throw the financial concerns at Laurentian into the mix and the ensuing challenges of ensuring that both previous recruits and returning vets made their way back to Sudbury (both coaches confirmed losing athletes due to the fiscal uncertainty at LU or programs that were cancelled), and one can understand why there is a need to start from scratch.

“I’m treating this as my first year,” said Ashton, who was named to the position in the fall of 2019, just as training camp commenced, posting a record of 2-8-4.

“That first season never felt like it was fully mine.”

And even though 2020 was bypassed completely, Ashton is confident that some of the groundwork he laid in recruiting that year does offer plenty of reasons for optimism.

“The first thing to do in building a team is to start from the back and work out,” noted the one-time captain of the Toronto Lynx. “The first signing I made was a goaltender.”

Specifically, Oshawa native Hunter Jones.

But with both Jones and Jocelyne Way (who played a couple of games in 2019) dealing with ailments, Ashton will keep four keepers in the fold this fall, with Woodbridge product Noemie Bouchard also in the mix as an option for the start when the Voyageurs face the Nipissing Lakers in North Bay on Sept. 24.

Across the back, Laurentian returns Megan Short (“she was one of our best players in my first year here”) and Clare Dasek (“talk about a player who has come back in form and done really, really well”), with Natalie Collicutt also expected to earning a starting nod.

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With an eye towards using a 4-2-3-1 formation, Ashton will need captain and four-year veteran Amanda Cuthbert to be at her very best in the middle of the field, with Elizabeth Anderson and Marymount graduate Chantae Robinson offering the coaching staff some viable options in the midfield.

The team will benefit from the return for one final year of Sudbury dynamo Brianne Rodrigue, with Ashton also supremely pumped at the potential from the likes of Oceane La Via (“she’s something special”), North Bay native and Northern Soccer Academy product Caitlyn Kervin (“she was our top scorer there and is looking really good”) and St. Francis Xavier transfer Margaux Fraser (“she’s dynamite”).

Longer term, he likes what he sees from Charlene Frew, battling back from an injury.

“We tried to replace the ones who graduated, replace them with kids who are better, who will make the team stronger — and we think that we did that,” said Ashton.

“For us to have any success, we really will have to build a lot of camaraderie in the group. We’re going to have to defend strong and be organized defensively.”

As for a style of play, don’t look for this version of the Voyageurs to be playing over the top much at all.

“This is probably the smallest team I’ve ever coached,” said Ashton. “The ball will be on the ground a lot.”

The first Laurentian home game takes place against Nipissing on Sept. 26 at 1 p.m., with the men following suit at 3:30 p.m.

The men donning the blue and gold that day will likely bear very little resemblance to the team that Castrechino trotted out in 2019, posting a record of 4-9-1 and finishing three points back of Nipissing for the final playoff spot.

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Sure, defenders and co-captains Graeme McLean and Mateus Forte are back to help carry the load with three years’ worth of experience and just the type of character the team will need with a large influx of new starters expected.

“They just command respect from everybody,” said Castrechino. “They don’t ask for it, they just get it.”

Their presence will be even more critical on a back-end four that will try and insulate keepers Keeghan Ezzard and Francesco Tosini from being completely overmatched, with neither having seen much in the way of previous OUA competition.

Joining McLean and Forte on the back line is 2020 recruit Nunzi Marceca from Thunder Bay, one of several rookies expecting to start to make a name for himself this fall. Anchoring the midfield is Giancarlo Galluzzo, a freshman who really never came off the field in 2019.

Castrechino, for one, is hoping that Nicholas Patenaude will follow directly in Galluzzo’s footsteps (“his skill, his touch on the ball is impressive”), with expectations equally as high for Toronto native Dylan Bruzzese, yet another product of the Woodbridge Strikers (“Dylan’s been putting the ball in the net consistently since training camp started”).

Safe to say that the Laurentian coaching staff will have a much better handle on exactly where this team sits once the abbreviated 10-game 2021 fall schedule is behind them.

“There’s a lot of new faces here — we’re still figuring out what kind of formation that we’re going to play,” said Castrechino.

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“We’ve only been at it a few days, but there are some promising signs — but I am glad we have an extra week and a half before our first game this year.”

As always, compete is the great equalizer in OUA men’s soccer, and many other sports as well, for that matter. For the man with some two decades on the sidelines at the LU campus, it’s a matter of balancing optimism with reality.

“The walk-ons really impressed with their skill, but for us to play our game, our compete level has to be through the roof,” said Castrechino. “Our energy has to be high, our fitness has to be high. We don’t have the skill of some of the teams down south. Our work ethic is going to have to supersede all that.”

“I really like the atmosphere in camp, but as you know, a few losses can change all that,” he added with a smile. “But going in, right now, the excitement is there.”

Just what you might expect from a start that is even more fresh than normal.

Randy Pascal is That Sudbury Sports Guy. Read his columns regularly in The Sudbury Star.

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