Griffins enter new season with talent, optimism and growing experience as they aim for a playoff spot

Stefan Gajic and the MacEwan Griffins will kick off the 2019 Canada West season with a visit to Saskatchewan on Friday (Chris Piggott photo).
Stefan Gajic and the MacEwan Griffins will kick off the 2019 Canada West season with a visit to Saskatchewan on Friday (Chris Piggott photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – The MacEwan Griffins men's soccer team enters the 2019 season with a fresh slate, a lesson at the forefront of their minds and renewed optimism that they can land the first Canada West playoff spot in program history.

Action gets underway on Friday, as the Griffins travel to Saskatoon for a date with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies (7 p.m., Canada West TV). They'll close out the weekend with a long road trip to Lethbridge, facing the Pronghorns on Sunday (2:15 p.m., Canada West TV).

There's no doubt head coach Adam Loga has a motivated group as the sting of last season's fortunes – losing seven of their last eight games to miss the playoffs by two points – is firmly stuck in their craw.

"It caught up to us a little bit midway through the season," said Loga, whose team was second place in the Prairie Division after going 3-2-1 in the first third of the 2018 campaign before the wheels fell off. "School was a late start date here and with several first-year athletes, we didn't pick up a win once they had to juggle both (athletics and academics).

"I think having that time management experience and then being so close (to the playoffs) just creates a little bit of a fire for them coming into this year," he added. "That maturity is going to help. Now they know where they're travelling, they know the standard, they know the opposition. Being so close, they know what it takes."

Loga believes the program is on the cusp of big things, which is often the hardest place to be. Even with a starting lineup featuring several rookies last season, the Griffins came the closest they've ever come to a playoff spot since joining Canada West in 2014. That certainly stokes the optimism that is coursing through the group.

"We're so close to turning a corner here, but that's usually the most difficult time," said Loga. "We as a staff just need to keep pushing the guys need to stay accountable to themselves and each other. Hopefully we get over that hump."

A year ago, striker Everett Orgnero scored eight times to shatter the program record for goals in a season, while rookies Stefan Gajic and Kapri (Marcus) Simmons also played big minutes. All three return to lead an attack, which will further be bolstered by rookie FC Edmonton Academy stalwarts Rakan (Ricky) Yassin and Michael Enes.

"Honestly, the sky's the limit for some of them," said Loga of his returning core, which also includes top defenders Zachary Rochat, Sheldon Prasad and Michael Ho. "Obviously with the CPL coming in, it gives these guys also an individual goal as well as the collective goal of making playoffs as a university. Guys like Stefan, Marcus and Everett are huge for us. And to be able to add some pieces that are at that standard as well has been great for the program."

Yassin is expected to play regular minutes off the hop up front for the Griffins, while Enes adds a huge component to MacEwan's midfield.

"Mikey Enes and Ricky Yassin, they'll bring technique and intelligence," said Loga. "They've got a pretty good soccer IQ compared to most. They are coming from the FC Edmonton U20 group and they're coached there by Sean Fleming, who's coached in two U17 World Cups himself. To have him coaching them every day is only going to spark more knowledge and intelligence in the game.

"They're professional in how they carry themselves in training. That intensity and willingness to improve is contagious throughout the group."

Seth Johnstone returns to lead MacEwan's goalkeeper group, while 6-foot-4 rookie Mason Perras offers promise.

"It's nice to have Seth back for another year," said Loga. "He had a great start to last season, so hopefully he can bring that form again."

The personnel are in place, now it's time to get over that mental hurdle and learn from the painful 2018 lesson.

"I think mostly, it's that we got complacent," said Griffins defender Evan Berube. "We got off to a hot start and we just thought it was going to roll like that the rest of the season.

"Hopefully this year, we keep the same intensity throughout the whole year. We were so close for so long, I think this year we just want to solidify ourselves as a playoff team and we're not a team (that yields) free points. You've got to fight for those points and earn those."

FREE KICKS … Loga has added a new assistant coach to the staff as Sheldon Denam joins a group that includes returning assistants Daniel Drummond and Santi Muniz. He'll bring a different style to the coaching staff. "Sheldon runs Warriors soccer club in the city," said Loga. "He brings a little bit of sandpaper to the staff. It's just a different perspective. That's something we needed on staff and within the program. He's on the front foot to make the program the best it can be and we're happy and blessed to have him here." … The Griffins' home opener is set for Sept. 7 vs. Calgary (2:30 p.m., Clareview Field, Canada West TV).