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TRU WolfPack looking to build on best men's soccer season in program history

Josh Banton paid attention to a Canada West coaches’ poll released on Monday.
James Fraser (from left), Mitch Popadynetz and Josh Banton
TRU WolfPack teammates James Fraser (from left), Mitch Popadynetz and Josh Banton celebrate a goal at the 2017 U Sports Soccer Championship at Hillside Stadium.

Josh Banton paid attention to a Canada West coaches’ poll released on Monday.

The TRU WolfPack defender’s eyebrows rose when he saw his team ranked fifth in the 13-team conference, feeling bronze medals last year at the U Sports and Canada West championships may have earned them more respect.

“I’m very surprised,” said Banton, the Leigh-on-Sea, England, product whose header helped underdog TRU to a 1-0 victory over the Ontario University Athletics champion York Lions in quarter-final play at the U Sports Men’s Soccer Championship in Kamloops in November.

“Considering how well we did last year, I’m surprised guys are underestimating us again,” Banton continued. “It’s for us to prove them wrong again. I’m more than happy to do so.”

TRU, which was 6-3-6 in regular-season play in 2017, is set to open the 2018 campaign this weekend, but hazardous air quality from wildfires burning across the province may lead to schedule changes.

Fraser Valley of Abbotsford was slated to play TRU at Hillside Stadium on Saturday, but that game has been postponed, likely until Monday.

TRU and Trinity Western of Langley are scheduled to square off on Sunday at Hillside Stadium, with kickoff set for 1 p.m.

Canada West and TRU brass will have a conference call on Friday at 3:30 p.m. to discuss whether more changes are necessary.

WolfPack head coach John Antulov recruited a strong crop of international players in time for the 2017 national championship season, but knew there was a chance some of them could disappear, with no assurance of a trip to the U Sports title tourney as a host team this year.

Nearly all of them decided to stay.

“That just says a lot about the program we have, our coach, the whole staff and the team,” said Thomas Lantmeeters, a fourth-year business student from Genk, Belgium.

“You just feel at home immediately. It’s very hard to leave that behind, even if you’ve come with the intention of staying for half a year.”

Antulov is aware his players may use the coaches’ poll as fuel and the fifth-year bench boss is fine with that, but he has no qualms with the Pack’s ranking.

“We are new. We’re young. We’ve only done it once,” Antulov said. “Those coaches have been around 25, 30 years. They want to see us sustain and do it over a long haul. I’m not too overly worried about it.”

Ranked one through three in the poll, in order, are UBC, Alberta and Trinity. TRU secured the lone first-place vote that did not go to UBC or Alberta, but was also ranked as low as 10th.

The WolfPack lost key cogs to graduation after the 2017 season.

Goalkeeper Allan Connor, who played the hero in the U Sports championship bronze-medal game last year, making two jaw-dropping saves to propel his WolfPack to a 3-2 victory over UBC, has moved into an assistant coaching position with TRU, as has graduated midfielder Brandon Mendez of Calgary.

Williams Lake product Ryan Glanville, a goal machine, and Colton Walker, a midfielder from Sicamous, have also aged out of university soccer.

Anatoli Leveille was 16 when he joined the Pack last season and became one of the team’s most exciting prospects, but Antulov said academic difficulties kept him from returning this season.

Leveille and Fraser scored for TRU in a 2-0 victory over the Alberta Golden Bears in the Canada West bronze medal game in Vancouver in November.

“I was a bit worried coming into it, losing key players, but having seen the recruits John’s brought in, I’m more than than happy and I can’t wait to get together and start playing,” Banton said.

Stanley Obinna, a first-year defender from Kristiansand, Norway, and Levi Andoh, a first-year defender from Leicester, England, are among notable recruits for the 2018 campaign and join a group of 16 returnees.

Returning to the fold are Canada West MVP and U Sports All-Canadian Mitch Popadynetz, a midfielder from Nelson, offensive threat James Fraser, a forward from Penticton, Finlay McPhie, a stalwart defender from Vernon, and standout midfielder Justin Donaldson of Kamloops.

Banton and defender Jan Pirretas Glasmacher of Barcelona, both 2017 Canada West rookie all-stars, will play important roles.

Rounding out TRU’s international contingent are defender Harry Coles of Prees, England, midfielder Khalifa Fanne of Tours, France, goalkeeper Alex Ram of Leicester, England, and midfielder Mathias Mansor of Kuala Lumpur.

Hazardous air quality across the province led to the cancellation of five WolfPack pre-season matches, games that would have helped the team form its identity before points are on the line.

“Everybody is in the same boat,” Antulov said.

“Schools have been calling me to get training time in Kamloops.”

The Victoria Vikes were scheduled to open their season this weekend with a pair of matches against the UNBC Timberwolves in Prince George, but both have been cancelled due to air quality concerns.

Jared Keim, a first-year Wolfpack defender from Kamloops, is hoping the smoke clears in time for his new team to make a statement.

“We’ll just have to show all the other coaches what we should be ranked and what kind of strength we do have,” said Keim, a South Kamloops secondary product.

“We have tonnes of players who are strong in many different positions. I’m just really excited to be a part of that.”