Coming off first CW playoff berth, Griffins head into new season looking to take next step

MacEwan co-captain Stefan Gajic launches a shot during the Griffins' 2021 playoff match against Victoria last season (Armando Turn/Victoria Vikes).
MacEwan co-captain Stefan Gajic launches a shot during the Griffins' 2021 playoff match against Victoria last season (Armando Turn/Victoria Vikes).

Jefferson Hagen
MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – After making the Canada West playoffs for the first time last season, the MacEwan Griffins men's soccer team is looking to take the next step in 2022.

The scrappy underdogs took Pacific Division No. 1-seeded Victoria to overtime in their quarter-final match before ultimately running out of gas.

So, head coach Adam Loga's mission all off-season was to add depth at every position to keep each player's reps fresh and high-level.

The result is the deepest collection of talent the Griffins men's soccer program has ever had with 12 promising newcomers joining an established group of veterans.

MacEwan will kick off the 2022 Canada West campaign by hosting the Mount Royal University Cougars on Saturday (2:30 p.m., Edmonton Scottish, Canada West TV).

The Griffins will also host Calgary on Sunday of their home-opening weekend (1 p.m., Edmonton Scottish, Canada West TV).

"I feel like we just got the monkey off the back (making playoffs for the first time), so now we've got to just keep it rolling," said veteran midfielder Stefan Gajic, who will co-captain the Griffins with Zach Rochat in 2022. "We want to think positive this season. Adversity is always going to happen, so just thinking positive, sticking together and just putting in the work (is key).

"As our (strength and conditioning) coach Dom (Oppong) always says – this is where we get paid – in preseason. Hopefully we can make playoffs again and even nationals this season."

Ricky Yassin looks for an opening in MacEwan's first Canada West playoff game, a quarter-final match against Victoria last fall (Armando Tura/Victoria Vikes photo).

Other veterans returning to the roster include reigning MacEwan male athlete of the year Rakan Yassin, who had four goals and six points in 10 regular season games, and Chance Carter – a defensive rock after playing pro for FC Edmonton. Fifth-year defenders Michael Ho, Sheldon Prasad and Joseph Abrahart are also back for their final seasons.

Among several newcomers expected to make an impact are FC Edmonton products Ousman Maheshe and Egzon Jeteshi, Edmonton Scottish striker Izak Bahdon, Fusion FC products Tommy Millar and goalkeeper Ekhtiar Nijjar, and BTB Academy forward Ali Blaybel.

"We're in a little bit of a different position than we were at in years prior," said head coach Adam Loga. "I think now we've officially earned the respect of the conference. We're going to have to take that in stride and understand teams are going to come at us now. If they were taking us lightly, they aren't anymore."

The Griffins grew into a playoff team late in the 2021 season – going 3-0-1 over their last four games to take the division's last post-season berth after a rocky 1-4-1 start.

Loga noted it all made sense with the team unable to train together for some 16 months over the pandemic, leading to a slow start that put them behind the 8-ball. 

But once they got rolling …

"Upon reflection and in our exit meetings as a staff, you start to connect things – well, no wonder we went unbeaten in regulation the last half of the season," said Loga. "Things started to form and flow. We didn't have an opportunity to get a head start or even a start like the other programs. So, that's the biggest thing. 

"Hopefully, we can get these guys to gel (quickly) with the guys who were away for Canada Summer Games and a lot of new faces, given the lads who've moved on professionally. We'll just give it our best shot."

What will help is a lot of them have played together or know each from various training opportunities, so chemistry won't be hard to find.

"We started way back," said Gajic. "Even in youth most of us played together, so just growing up together and hanging out on and off the field is the most rewarding thing possible for us."

Chance Carter, right, high-fives teammate Abass Ajibade after a game last season. Both are back again for the Griffins (Tia Schram photo).

Nothing like one of Canada West's best teams to kick off the season. The Cougars were ranked second in the preseason coaches' poll after a Canada West bronze medal in 2021 and return the conference's reigning player of the year in Mohamed El Gandour. 

That said, the Griffins are focusing on themselves and what they need to have going in their game to be successful.

"The details in our game model are very specific and when they click, we're a very, very tough team to beat," said Loga. "I think a lot of other programs would say the same. But, transparently speaking, we have a lot of fine details that need to happen for it to really go. 

Hopefully, we clean those up sooner rather than later. 

"I'm happy we caught our wave at the end of the season last year," he added. "It was tough to get in sync and tough to find it in the first half last year. Obviously, when we did, I thought we … we had one chance at the end that could have put us into the next round and eventually nationals. We were that close, so hopefully that belief carries on right through."