UFV's Micheal Mobilio pushes the ball forward during preseason action. Both the men's and women's soccer teams open the regular season tonight (Friday) in Abbotsford.

UFV's Micheal Mobilio pushes the ball forward during preseason action. Both the men's and women's soccer teams open the regular season tonight (Friday) in Abbotsford.

Cascades kick off new era at MRC Sports Complex

Men's, women's soccer teams open Canada West regular season tonight (Friday)

The University of the Fraser Valley men’s soccer team, winners of two conference bronze medals in the past three seasons, are eying a return to the Canada West podium in 2016 – and hope to take a step beyond and earn the program’s first CIS championship berth.

They begin that journey this weekend, as they kick off the Canada West regular season at home. The Cascades host the Thompson Rivers WolfPack on Friday, and the UBC Okanagan Heat on Saturday. Both games kick off at 8 p.m. at MRC Sports Complex, Field 4 – the Cascades’ new home pitch.

Second-year head coach Tom Lowndes has a veteran crew at his disposal this season, headlined by a quartet of fifth-year players – forward James Najman, midfielders Connor MacMillan and Justin Sekhon, and defender Sahib Phagura – and a 2015 Canada West second team all-star in midfielder/defender Tammer Byrne.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with these veteran players in some capacity for four years, and to see them grow and develop has been exciting,” Lowndes said. “They’ve come in hungry and want to achieve something this season, and with the support of the other returnees and the rookies, it’s the deepest our squad’s ever been.”

Byrne leads a reconfigured backline which also features Phagura, fourth-year standout Sukhjit Dhaliwal and rookie Ryan Donald, who has impressed throughout the preseason. They’ll be playing in front of keeper Alex Skrzeta, who is entering his second full season as starter and posted five wins and three clean sheets in 2015.

Attacking midfielder MacMillan is coming off an outstanding playoff run – he racked up three goals and an assist in three post-season games, matching his output from the entire regular season, and he’ll be counted on as an offensive catalyst once again. Michael Mobilio and Gurmaan Jhaj also figure prominently into Lowndes’s midfield plans. Sekhon and Daniel Davidson provide attacking threats out wide in support of strikers Najman and Elijah Sampson.

Lowndes said the pair of games this weekend should be a good early test for his team.

“The league’s getting stronger and stronger every year, top to bottom, and TRU and UBCO both proved that,” Lowndes said. “There’s no easy games in Canada West. You’ve got to go into each game prepared to do the things you need to do to be successful.”

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The University of the Fraser Valley women’s soccer team brings a talented roster into Canada West action this season as they seek another trip to the CIS national championship.

They open their conference schedule on Friday against their local rivals, the Trinity Western Spartans, with a 5:30 p.m. kickoff at MRC Sports Complex, Field 4.

Head coach Rob Giesbrecht, who has guided the Cascades to two national championship tourneys (2010 and 2014) in six previous years at the helm, waved goodbye to two-thirds of his outstanding backline (Dayle Jeras and Jade Palm) and the 2015 CIS assists leader (Shelby Beck) at the end of last season.

But he’s got a lot of talent returning to a squad that spent seven out of 10 weeks in the national rankings last year.

“I think we’re going to compete with the best teams in the country,” Giesbrecht said. “Our goal is to return to the national championships and be successful there. We know that to do that will be extremely difficult, but I believe we’re capable of beating anybody in our division, our conference and the nation. However, because we play in the toughest division and the toughest conference, we know we have to be at our best all the time. If we can find that level of consistency and push our performance to our max, it’s going to be a very good year.”

Fifth-year keeper Kayla Klim is among the best at her position in the conference, and she’ll be playing behind a new-look defence led by fellow senior Tristan Corneil, a Canada West first team all-star last season.

Brittney Zacharuk and Sunayna Samra will ignite the offence from the central midfield, with veteran standouts Danica Kump, Karlee Pedersen and Amanda Carruthers speeding down the wings. Holding midfielder Kara Delwo, a Canada West first team all-star in 2014, is working her way back into the lineup after knee surgery.

Up front, third-year striker Monika Levarsky (seven goals in 2015) and sophomore Gurneet Dhaliwal (six goals) form a dangerous partnership for a team that finished second in the conference in goals (32) last season.

Friday’s game will be a challenge, as the Spartans earned a Canada West silver last year.

“It’s going to be a good gauge to see where we’re at,” Giesbrecht said. “We have a lot of respect for our cross-valley rivals, but we’re entering the game fearing nothing, and if we play the way we want to play we give ourselves a great chance to be successful. I think Friday night is all about playing the game to our strengths and having some of our key players be difference-makers.”