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The VIU Mariners Men’s Soccer Team finished the 2019 season with a regular season record of seven wins, three losses, and two draws. They took home Silver in the 2019 Provincials—or Pacific Western Athletic Association (PACWEST) Championship—Silver in the 2019 Nationals—or Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Championship— and an abundance of individual awards. 

According to PACWEST Coach of the Year and head coach of the Mariner’s, Larry Stefanek, the regular season was close. 

“Every game was a battle, and very even,” Stefanek said. “We ended up winning the [regular season] league. We had the best goal difference—most goals for, least goals against— but it wasn’t easy.”

The PACWEST is a league composed of four teams: Capilano Blues, Langara Falcons, Douglas Royals, and of course, the VIU Mariners. That said, each team would play every other team twice at home and twice on the opposing team’s turf. 

The Mariners lost every preseason exhibition game before they hosted Capilano for their first two games of the regular season on September 7 and 8. 

All Canadian, All Star, PACWEST Player of the Year, and Team Captain of the Mariners, positioned at the Mid, Shun Takano, said the team was anxious to play the season opener against the Blues, who typically do well in the regular season. 

“After the home opener, it changed everything,” Takano said. “We could have beaten Capilano twice. One was a tie, but we beat them on [the following day]. We felt like ‘Oh, we can do this.’”

The season opener ended in a draw, with a final score of 2-2. The game on the following day, however, ended with a 2-1 score in favour of the Mariners. 

“That was kind of the catalyst,” Stefanek said. “We kind of knew we could win games at that point. We knew we were stronger than them. So, that was one of the turning points of the season for sure, and we just kicked off from there.”

The next weekend, the Mariners traveled to Lanagara for their first away game, where they fell 2-1 for their first loss of the season. 

“We tied the game until about [the eighty minute mark],” Takano said. “Our goalie crashed with the other team’s player, so the refs sent him off. We had another goalkeeper come in, but he got injured within the last ten minutes. So the next day, we didn’t have any goalies to play.”

According to Takano, PACWEST Rookie of the Year Michael Heppelle filled the goalie position for the Mariners for their match at Douglas College. Takano said they were nervous for their game. Despite the loss of their goalkeepers and the team’s struggle with injuries, the Mariners worked hard and finished their back-to-back away games with a 5-1 win. Following the success of this game, the mentality shifted. The Mariners knew they could win the league.

Thompson Nelson, another Midfielder for the team, cited these back-to-back games as one of the greatest learning experiences for the team. 

“We knew we could beat [Lanagara]. After that game, our captains rallied us back and united us as a team to rebound against Douglas,” Nelson said. “Everything was just flowing nicely and everyone was on the same page.”

One of the team’s greatest hurdles early in the season was mentality. In the 2018 season, the Mariners placed last in the division with a record of one win, nine losses, and two draws. 

“We brought in a lot of new players… one of the biggest obstacles for us, with all these new players in, was just proving to ourselves, more than anyone else, that we can actually A) compete, and B) get results and get wins. And we proved that pretty early in the season,” Stefanek said. 

Beating Douglas, who turned out to be the Mariner’s toughest competition in the PACWEST with an even 2-2 record by the end of the season, was significant in the team’s progression.

“This game was a big turning point for us. It was a really good game,” Takano said. “That’s our biggest game of the season I think.”

Takano also highlighted age and experience as significant factors determining the team’s success. “Our boys are very young. Some of them are eighteen, seventeen years old. I think I’m the oldest guy on the team. The other guys are twenty, twenty-one. So, we obviously needed experience to get confidence, but we got it through the season, and got to the nationals. We grew up together, and we became a team together,” Takano said. 

Takano’s only experience as captain came in the 2018 season where he filled a role with less responsibility: sub-captain. Considering the shortcomings of the 2018 season, Takano wanted to turn things around. His plan revolved around developing a stronger sense of comradery.

“I was thinking: What can we do for getting success? I was always planning for something effective for the boys,” Takano said. “From preseason, we were struggling, but every time, we overcome our issues and problems. Every time, we jump high and climb it, and then we get to nationals.”

On the Mariners’ next outing they received their second and final draw of the season at Capilano, with a score of 2-2 and a 2-null victory at Langara. The Mariners ended September with a 1-nothing win over Douglas, then a 2-0 loss to Douglas at home. 

The Mariners began October with convincing back-to-back home game wins against Langara, posting a 3-1 win in the first game, and a 4-1 win the following game, leaving one game left of the regular season. 

“If we win the game, we can win the league, so it’s a big pressure,” Takano said. 

The Mariners performed well, posting 3-0 at Capilano for their 2019 Nationals berth, prior to the PACWEST Championship.

“To make Nationals with games left was huge,” Nelson said. “Nobody expected this amazing of an outcome and we definitely shocked the league, showing our quality as a team.”

PACWEST is a conference that has one of the two wildcards for the CCAA Championship. The Mariners won the league, and got a bye in the PACWEST Finals—meaning they only had to play in the league final—whereas Douglas, who was in second, had to play Capilano, who was third, the day before the Gold Medal Game of the PACWEST Finals. Douglas won, meaning the Mariners would face the Royals for Gold. 

“We knew we were in the CCAA Nationals even before we played that Gold Medal PACWEST game against Douglas,” Stefanek said. “It was just a matter of, the winner of that game was the PACWEST Champion, they go as the top seed. So, we went as the wildcard seed, because we lost that game, even though we won the league. It’s confusing, I know.”

Although the Mariners were locked in for the CCAA Championship, they showed up to the PACWEST Final ready to play. Despite their 2-0 loss, they had plenty to take away from the game, and into the Nationals.

According to Stefanek, the PACWEST Final was an opportunity to fine tune some things going into the CCAA Championship. And the loss might have been a blessing in disguise. Being the wildcard, the Mariners pulled a better draw in the Nationals. 

“I think that losing is a good rounding experience from the failure,” Takano said. “If we win the game, maybe we have a different scenario in the Nationals. Maybe our feeling is that we are the PACWEST Champions, ‘we can do this better, we can do that.’ But we lost, actually. And people were like, ‘okay, we have to change something. We have to worry about nationals. We have to [be] well prepared for Nationals.”

Takano said he was initially nervous for the Nationals. His first time in the Nationals was in 2017, when the Mariners had a more experienced cast, and came home with Gold. Then, Takano was just following his seniors, but this time he was leading the way as Team Captain. He was worried that he would have to carry the team, but after the Mariners touched down on the pitch against the Lethbridge Kodiaks, the boys showed what they were capable of. The Mariners won their first Nationals game with a score of 2-1. After that, Takano’s worries subsided. 

However, the Semi-Final game would prove to be a tougher challenge. The Mariners played the Humber Hawks, who won the CCAA Nationals five of the last seven years. Moreover, they won the Championship in the 2018 season, making them the defending Champions. 

“We went down 1-null to them kind of early in the first half. We were a bit nervy, some of the younger guys, and then we started to play better and better. Then, second half, we played much better. We ended up tying it up,” Stefanek said. “So we played the 90 minutes: 1-1.”

In all games, except medal games, if there was a tie, the game would proceed to penalty kicks (PKs), as opposed to overtime. 

“They were a strong team, probably a tiny bit sharper than us. They probably thought they deserved a bit better, but we hung in there, and created some chances, ourselves. Our goalie made some saves,” Stefanek said. “We went to penalties, and our goalie, Kevin Picard, made two huge saves, to seal the game in penalties. We scored all four of ours, and then we didn’t even have to take the fifth, because we were up 4-2.”

Stefanek said the boys were fired up, but that could be considered an understatement. 

All Star Defender Grayson Chalifoux said, “It was pretty crazy. It was a crazy feeling. They’re the defending champions, they are a good team, and we showed them who’s best.” 

Nelson added that representing his people of the Kingcome Inlet in the Nationals was huge. “Not many First Nations athletes get that kind of opportunity to show where they come from and how hard it is to get to a calibre of that level in sports,” Nelson said. “We shocked [Humber], as they have won four of the last five Nationals and they were extremely strong. Everybody played their part and battled hard, showing how strong our team is as a family against adversity.”

Takano cited the game as the season’s highlight as well. “After we won against them, everyone was crying. Even though we didn’t achieve finals, or gold medal, or silver medal, we didn’t get anything, but we were all crying. So that game was really huge, and shows us that we are true family,” Takano said. 

The Gold Medal Game was against the Durham Lords, and they were the hosting team. 

“It was a good battle,” Stefanek said. “I thought on the day, we deserved better. But we conceded two goals that we probably wanted back. And credit to them, they got them; they scored three on us. But unlike the semi, where I thought Humber was probably a bit better than us, we were a better team than Durham in this game, and I think we’re stronger than them. But, that doesn’t matter; it’s the team that scores more goals and lets in less.”

The Mariners fell short of their goal, but came home with Silver, nonetheless. On top of that, the team received a plethora of individual awards for their efforts on the season. 

PACWEST All Stars included Billy Bagiopoulos (Forward), Grayson Chalifoux (Defence), Diego Corlazzoli (Defence), and Shun Takano (MidField). The PACWEST Player of the Year Award went to Shun Takano, PACWEST Rookie of the Year went to Michael Heppelle (Forward), and PACWEST Coach of the Year went to Larry Stefanek. For the PACWEST Championship, Chalifoux and Takano were recognized as the top player in their respective positions. Takano was named All-Canadian following the CCAA Championship, as well as All-Star along with his teammates Chalifoux and Corlazzoli. Lastly, Heppelle was named Player of the Game for the Mariners in the Gold Medal Game.

“I’m proud of it for sure. It’s really nice, especially when you’re a defender,” Chalifoux said. “It’s a big team thing too because when you’re getting buried every game, you’re definitely not getting an All-Star. So, it feels like a lot more of a team one when you’re a defender for sure.”

“It’s an individual award. Only I can get it, because they called my name. But the game is 11 against 11, one against 11 cannot do anything. So [these awards], I think, are not for myself. [They’re] for people who helped me a lot, and who played soccer with me in the season,” Takano agreed.

Although the 2019 season has come to a close, the Mariners continue to work towards Gold.

“We’re hoping to take the Gold next year. We were as close as we could have gotten last season. Just keep growing. It’s such a young team, so there’s still so much potential for us to keep getting better, and hopefully we get the job done next year,” Chalifoux said. 

Most, if not all, of the Mariners go on to play for club teams in the off-season. There are training sessions set for the new year and a weekly gym session that runs year round. Then back to pre-season in August. The team works on a yearly plan, but involves the players playing on other teams, as the Mariners are not yet a full-time program. 

“We are in a decent place right now. I think [the] majority of the players are going to stay next year, too. And they’re really young. So, they will get [more] experience next year too. So that’s why we are in a good place,” Takano said. “We should get the Gold Medal next year. But also, we have to achieve small steps to get there. We have to win the [league] again, win the first National game, second National game to get to the Finals. Every step we want to achieve, we will do nicely. Maybe we will struggle, but we’re not going to be hugely negative. We will close together, get together, and bounce back together. It’s a whole cycle. Dream big, and try to [take] action.”

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