It would be exaggerating to say those following the PacWest men’s soccer scene pegged the Mariners to qualify for National Championships this year.
VIU lost five starting players in the offseason, including All-Canadian’s Jared Stephens and Chris Arnett, former rookie-of-the-year Kevin Brown, and veteran defender Brad Archibald. Odds did not favour the Mariners returning to Nationals—let alone finishing the regular season with just a single loss.
“People didn’t think we’d be as good as we were this year,” says head coach Bill Merriman. “We got depleted quite a bit and people were writing us off, which was good, we can just slide under the radar [into playoffs].”
That’s exactly what the M’s did. A summer focused on conditioning followed by high-tempo practices working on passes and building chemistry meant VIU may not be the most skilled team, but they would be tenacious.
“We spend hours on that,” Merriman says, laughing. “I think the practice helped the team in a way because I don’t know how many players didn’t score this year. We scored more goals than ever and we have more people scoring. Stephen Ewashko is around six goals, Drissa Bouare is about the same, and Blaze Roberts, who didn’t play that much, is about six or seven.”
Merriman says Bouare and Roberts are two freshman players really making an impact on the Mariners. Roberts has developed into a “super-sub” for the team with his ability to come off the bench in the second half with energy to score big goals.
Roberts suffered a freak injury during the PacWest Provincial Championships in Oct. after scoring on a perfectly-executed header. He was on the field for one minute before the goal, and hurt his ankle on the landing.
The Mariners won a silver medal at Provincials, defeating TRU with a demanding 4–0 victory before losing the final match to Douglas College 3–0 the following day. Merriman says the team may have put a bit too much energy into the semi final game—physically and mentally.
“I think we put so much into that first game. After we knew we were in Nationals, it wasn’t like we took the second game easily, but [we were] just emotionally drained. It was our goal to get to Nationals,” Merriman says. “Some of the players were disappointed a little bit. The senior players wanted to win another Provincial championship.”
Similar to last season, the Mariners have several players in their fifth year at VIU: Brant Losch, Ben Leggett, Matt Mehrassa, Matt Rigden, Davis Stupich, and Daniel Young-Mercer. Five other players are in their third and fourth year, providing leadership for the freshman and sophomore players.
Mehrassa was chosen to captain the Mariners this season and Merriman counts on him to act as a go-between the players and coaches. Losch has become a well-respected teammate in his time with the Mariners, while Leggett is a player who leads by example on the field.
“I think what’s happened this year, we have some players who, in life in general, are natural leaders,” Merriman says.
The coaching staff puts responsibility on the seniors to emphasize to new players how the team operates and what coaches expect on and off the pitch. Merriman says this requires urging at times, as players in their fifth year sometimes forget what it is like to be a freshman. Still, they are usually able to maintain that chemistry on their own, and understand they can approach Merriman if needed.
“It’s comfortable that way. There’s a line, but they know they can come and talk to me as well,” Merriman says. “For me, I try to stay on an even keel. I try to keep that balance whether we win or lose, because I know the players take it the hardest.”
With a team of several fifth-year players comes a busy off-season of recruiting for Mariners’ staff. Merriman is well-connected in the Nanaimo soccer scene through his high-performance soccer academy and relationship with the Mid Isle Highlanders FC, easing the recruitment process.
Merriman says several players on the Highlanders’ U-21 team will be eligible to claim a spot on the Mariners next season and already train with the team three days a week.
“In a way, I’m looking forward to [recruiting]. I know these [senior players] have put in a hard five years and now it’s time to rebuild and work with another group. Hopefully in another three years we can get back, if we can get back sooner that’s great,” Merriman says.
The CCAA National Championships concluded after the Nav. deadline—visit <www.mariners.viu.ca> for results.