The UFV Cascades men’s soccer team, shown here in an exhibition match against SFU earlier this month, open the season on Friday. (UFV Athletics photo)

The UFV Cascades men’s soccer team, shown here in an exhibition match against SFU earlier this month, open the season on Friday. (UFV Athletics photo)

UFV men’s soccer kicks off 2019 campaign

Cascades host home opener tonight, aim to build off last year’s playoff run

The University of the Fraser Valley men’s soccer program launches its 2019 conference campaign on Friday, aiming to build on a run to the Canada West Final Four last season.

The Cascades open at home, hosting the reigning Canada West champion UBC Thunderbirds (7 p.m., MRC Sports Complex), then hit the road for a Sunday date with the Victoria Vikes (2 p.m.).

Admission is free for Cascades soccer home games, and a food truck from Kal Side Grill will be on site at MRC Sports Complex throughout the season.

Head coach Tom Lowndes graduated just three players from his 2018 squad, which posted a 7-6-2 record – good for third in the Pacific Division.

Those players – All-Canadian centre back Tammer Byrne and goalkeepers David Hicks and Alex Skrzeta – were pivotal presences for the Cascades, but the balance of the roster is deep, and boasts an intriguing mix of youth and experience.

“I think we have the quality, and a little more experience now,” said Lowndes, whose Cascades knocked off the Saskatchewan Huskies on the road in the CW quarter-finals before falling to UBC and Thompson Rivers in the Final Four to wrap up last season. “Every year, making it to the playoffs is the goal. Once you’re in the playoffs, it’s about how high you can finish and set yourself up for a run at qualifying for nationals.”

The strength of this year’s UFV side is up front. Fifth-year forward Gurmaan Jhaj is coming off a phenomenal season, which saw him net 13 goals to shatter the team’s single-season record of eight. The CW first team all-star is within striking distance of the team’s all-time records for goals (he has 17, record is 20) and points (he has 22, record is 31), and he’s wearing the captain’s armband this year following Byrne’s departure.

“He was a big-time player for us last year, scored some important goals and took on a leadership role,” Lowndes said of Jhaj. “That’s something we’re hoping he can continue into his senior year and really lead this team from the front.”

Third-year Parman Minhas could be poised for a breakthrough up front, and fourth-year Atle Koellmel, redshirt freshman Mikael Mainella, and UBC transfer Manpal Brar will also factor into the mix.

In the midfield, senior Brady Weir brings an attacking flair, and sophomores Trevor Zanatta and Rajan Bains give the Cascades a rock-solid pair of holding midfielders. Veterans David Parfett, Charandeep Rangi and Anthony Vega figure to be major contributors, and highly touted rookies Liam Kelly and Jehmrode Kahlon will also contribute as part of a deep group.

Sahib Sidhu, a CW all-rookie selection last season and UFV’s rookie of the year across all sports, will step up to lead the Cascades’ backline in Byrne’s absence. Nawaf Binsaleh, a fifth-year transfer from Douglas College, will play alongside Sidhu at centre back, and fourth-year Ryan Donald is a standout at right back. Senior Tyler Henderson and sophomore Kyle Gibson are battling for minutes at left back.

Perhaps the most intriguing training-camp battle has been in goal, where Lowndes goes from two fifth-year keepers in Hicks and Skrzeta to a quartet of rookies. Redshirt freshman Joben Mander and true freshmen Ethan Duggan, Jackson Cowx and Thomas Veinot comprise the Cascades’ depth chart, and are battling for the right to start on opening night vs. UBC.

“Being brutally honest, it’s a dogfight right now,” Lowndes said. “They all want to play, they all want to show what they can do at this level.

“There’s going to be mistakes, I get that. But it’s going to be about a five-year process, not just Year 1. I think technically they’re all very strong, and athletically they’re very good. It’s going to be a case of who can put their nerves aside and play without fear, and that’s going to be the one we’ll go with. You’ve got to have a presence in goal and inspire confidence throughout the rest of your team.”

The Cascades don’t exactly ease into conference play, hosting the reigning champs before visiting one of CW’s toughest road destinations. UFV is ranked No. 7 in the CW preseason coaches’ poll, while UBC is No. 1 and UVic checks in at No. 8.

“It gives us a chance to test ourselves early on and see where we’re at,” Lowndes reasoned, looking ahead to the opener vs. the T-Birds. “That game won’t define our season – it won’t make or break us. But to go up against the top team in Canada West and one of the top teams in the nation is something we’ll look forward to. It’ll be nice to play at home in front of our fans.

“And Vic is always a tough place to play at. They’ll cause us a different type of problem than UBC.”