Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Hard to believe the time has gone by this fast, but Stefan Gajic is already heading into his final regular season home game with the MacEwan Griffins men's soccer team this weekend.
A regular starter since he burst onto the scene in 2018 as a 17-year-old rookie in the Canada West ranks, Gajic has worked hard to finish his degree in 2022 – a Bachelor of Commerce – and will be graduating from Griffins Athletics after using up only three of five years of university eligibility.
"We talked as a team (last year) that with COVID happening it was important that they kept a routine," said Griffins head coach Adam Loga. "So, a lot of them with online classes, just went to school, all four quarters, if you will.
"He just knocked out school rather than just sitting there not progressing. Great for him. He graduates at a young age and gives himself options, potentially CPL (Canadian Premier League) and other pro leagues, and he has a degree under his belt."
Gajic will lead the Griffins into their final two home games of the 2021 regular season vs. Lethbridge on Saturday and Sunday (both 2:30 p.m., Clarke Stadium, Canada West TV presented by Co-op). Following Sunday's match, he will be one of three seniors – along with Evan Berube and Simon Dawe – feted in a special post-game ceremony.
Loga believes Gajic has pro potential in the future if that's the route he wishes to go.
"I believe if he wants to make that step to the next level he can," he said. "He's been in FC Edmonton Academy as a youth player and I know he's got some runs with the team this year as well when they were short lads.
"He's also grown since he got here. Not only has he put on some weight in the weight room with our strength coach, he's grown in height. He has good size, is a smart footie player and is just a great technician. I have no doubt in my mind if he wants that in the near future he could definitely go grab it with the right mentality."
Gajic, the youngest of three soccer-playing brothers, was born in Canada after his family escaped war-torn Serbia. Older brother Srdjan played pro in Germany and is currently on the Griffins' team staff as video coach. And brother Dejan previously played for the Griffins in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the latter MacEwan's first in the Canada West ranks.
"Stef's obviously a very technical player," said Loga. "He's grown both on and off the pitch, just in his game, the defensive side of the ball and as a human. It's been awesome. It's sad COVID happened because he expedited his school process a little bit faster and we won't have him as many seasons as we would have liked.
"He's a leader now for us," he added. "I can't say enough about him. I just remember recruiting him and we would hit it off right away. We would chat for hours on the phone. It clicked and it's still clicking and hopefully we can see him off with a couple victories here."
Berube is in a similar situation, set to graduate after coming in as a rookie in 2018. The defender has played in eight games for the Griffins over his career, including two matches this season.
Most memorably, he made a save on the goal-line against Alberta on Sept. 25 to preserve a 1-1 tie with the Golden Bears.
"Evan brought some much-needed maturity and age to the locker-room," said Loga. "Ev came in at a very crucial time for us as a program to make that next step and continually be competitive with the bigger schools and bigger programs.
"He has played at a higher level at USL2 before coming in, but he also brought some age because we were so young. So, just having that maturity and being able to provide that guidance to some of the younger lads has been awesome for us."
Dawe, who has also been with the Griffins since 2018, is set to finish up with the program, too. Playing as MacEwan's backup keeper this season, he has seen action in three games, filling in for injured starter Josh Stayko.
He's also played a key support role to starter Seth Johnstone in the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
"Every starter needs that push from the (backup) – whether that's performance-based or even a push to work harder or put in more time and bounce ideas off of," said Loga. "I think for him to do that with a couple different keepers over the course of his time at MacEwan shows his likability and willingness to put team first.
"That's obviously been something we haven't taken for granted. Goalkeeping's obviously a unique position because there's only one of them on the pitch. Being able to have that teammate like Simon to provide that to our starter over the years has been very valued."
Heading into the weekend, the Griffins (1-4-1) sit ahead of Lethbridge (0-6-1) in the standings, but they are really chasing fourth-place Saskatchewan (3-2-1), who are six points ahead for the final playoff spot.
Realistically, MacEwan would need two wins this weekend to give themselves a chance heading into the last weekend of the season when they have an Oct. 23-24 road trip to Calgary (3-0-3) scheduled.