Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Weeks and weeks of training together has the Griffins men's soccer team primed and in top form heading into the 2021 Canada West season, which finally begins Saturday with their home opener vs. cross-town rival Alberta.
The contest (2:30 p.m., Clareview Stadium, Canada West TV presented by Co-op) has been months and months in the making, actually, as it will have been 706 days since their last regular season game – nearly two years of anticipation for the moment.
Beyond the delay created by the pandemic has been a late start to the season, which began Sept. 10 for B.C. teams, but features four teams playing for the first time this weekend.
"It's been crazy, actually," said veteran centre-back Zachary Rochat. "We started preseason it seems like months ago. At the start, it felt like the season wasn't coming at all – it's taking so long, so long. Last month, it's really sped up and now it's just here.
"All I can say is we're ready to play and we just can't wait for this weekend."
Rochat, in his fourth year of eligibility, will be a key leader for a Griffins team that's seen plenty of turnover since last hitting the field. It doesn't seem that long ago that he first arrived at MacEwan in 2018 as a transfer from the University of Texas-Tyler.
"I've obviously grown in the Griffins' program and Adam's put a lot of faith in me as a leader," said the St. Albert product, who was the team's MVP in 2018. "This is my fourth year with the team, so I've just tried to take pieces from all the other veterans who have been here each year, and I've tried to implement that in my own way of leading a team."
He will be among the Griffins' leadership group as they hit the field with a few young, promising faces.
"Honestly, this is the best team I've played with at MacEwan," said Rochat. "We have a lot of depth right now. We have people who can come off the bench and make a difference.
"We picked up Chance (Carter) from FC Edmonton first team and he's been immense for us. I can't wait to see what he's going to do for us this season. Even someone like Josh Stayko in net, he's a class keeper and a really nice guy. We're really happy with some of the signings we've made this year."
How quickly they gel as a unit will be the key to their success, said head coach Adam Loga. So far, he's been impressed. In their final preseason tuneup on Wednesday, the Griffins blasted ACAC squad King's University 6-0.
"In terms of coming together and creating that unity, I think this is probably the closest group we've had," said Loga. "Whether that's the aftermath of having such a long time off due to COVID so they're a bit more keen to be back together or the veteran presence that we haven't really had in the past that has created it. But it's been a close-knit group over this time and hopefully that translates onto the pitch."
MacEwan's defenders like Rochat know they need to be on point against the Golden Bears, who boast two of their former teammates up front – Lahai Mansaray and Everett Orgnero – as well as returning fifth-year Ajeej Sarkaria, who was playing with FC Edmonton and previously dominated the Canada West ranks.
Zach Rochat protects the ball from Alberta's Cam Borrett during a 2019 match between the Edmonton rivals (Chris Piggott photo).
"There's a lot of firepower within our conference and even furthermore within our division," said Loga. "We've done a lot of work on our defensive organization and shape. We're just looking to see how we can stay hungry and organized, and have that will and grit to battle every week."
Adding Canada West Hall of Fame centre-back Paul Hamilton to the coaching staff has helped prepare Rochat and his defensive teammates to take the next step this season.
"He's been great," said Rochat. "I've known Paul just from being in the Edmonton area. I've watched him play for years now, especially when he first signed for FC Edmonton back in 2011. Now that he's joined our coaching staff, he's helped me immensely.
"Just being able to have his insight on the game and being able to talk to him after practice what I can improve on, it's been all the world to me."
Rochat has been dabbling in coaching himself, helping his father Jamie on the staff of the St. Albert Soccer Association's U17 team. It's a natural fit for a veteran centre-back, who is tasked with directing traffic and leading from the back line.
"Ever since I was a teenager, I always wanted to become a coach someday, whether it was at a casual level with youth or one day going into something like helping out at the university level," said the MacEwan English major. "My goal in life is to become a teacher and help kids learn, so it's been great to pick up those cues from my father and see how I can help people."
Following Saturday's home opener, the Griffins will complete a home-and-home set against the Golden Bears as the road team on Sunday (2 p.m., Foote Field, Canada West TV presented by Co-op). MacEwan has gone 0-9-3 against the Bears since entering Canada West in 2014, but they tied them during the 2019 season and have been gaining momentum as a program of late.
"There's no easy game in this conference and this division," said Loga. "We know that. We definitely learned that in 2019 with the amount of one-goal defeats and the amount of draws we had (five one-goal losses and five ties in posting a 1-8-5 record).
"We just have to find a way to push that little bit more and hopefully the young guys in can develop quickly. It's probably the most veteran team we've had in recent program history, but we also understand that a lot of lads moved on to the next level, which is tremendous in its own right. Hopefully we can come together as 11 becoming one and find some success."