Head coach John Antulov has helped transform a basement-dwelling U Sports expansion team into a podium contender in a span of six years.
The TRU WolfPack men’s soccer squad followed its best-ever season — 2017, in which it won bronze at nationals, hosted in Kamloops, and at the conference championship — with another Canada West bronze in 2018.
Medals mean something when it comes to recruiting and this past off-season marked another step forward for the program.
“The big thing is not having to chase as much,” Antulov said. “Guys are more contacting you, interested in coming to the program. It makes it a lot easier in regards to finding players, being maybe a little bit more selective.
“Good athletes, good in school — I even had some tough decisions to make in regards to some other guys that wanted to come here. We’ve never had that opportunity before.
“That’s where we wanted to be.”
Great contribution from a nucleus of international players has been key to the WolfPack’s ascension in recent years, in part out of necessity, with a dearth of Lower Mainland players interested in leaving home to play in the Tournament Capital.
The move up the Coquihalla to Kamloops for post-secondary soccer is becoming less taboo.
“We’ve got at least four or five players coming from Vancouver this year, which we’ve never had in the past,” said Antulov, who became head coach of the WolfPack in time for their debut U Sports (then CIS) campaign in 2014.
“That dependence on international players … Even though that door is still open for us, we’ve got that good balance and that good mix.”
Last year’s season was marred by a horrid start, which included a pre-season undone by poor air quality in Kamloops, the result of wildfires blazing in the region.
Five exhibition matches were cancelled and the team did not gel in time for regular-season play, with a 2-6-2 start making it a long shot to crack the post-season.
The WolfPack found form, to say the least, and were among the hottest teams in the nation down the stretch, riding a six-match unbeaten streak into the Canada West Final Four.
Gold-medal hopes were dashed with a 3-0 loss to Trinity Western in the conference semifinal round, but TRU blanked Fraser Valley 1-0 in a torrential downpour in Vancouver to win bronze. Justin Donaldson of Kamloops bagged the winning goal.
“It should have been better,” said TRU defender Josh Banton, a Leigh-On-Sea, England, product who has become a pillar of the squad since coming to Kamloops three years ago. “But we take the positives. Now, it’s time for us to push on from bronze and get silver and gold.”
Defender Finlay McPhie of Vernon, midfielder Thomas Lantmeeters of Belgium and forward Mitch Popadynetz of Nelson are among graduated WolfPack players who leave big cleats to fill.
Popadynetz accounted for about 18 per cent of the WolfPack’s scoring [28 of TRU’s 153 points] over the last two seasons, McPhie was a rock at the back and Lantmeeters was influential in the middle of the park.
“It’s up to the other guys who have been here for a couple of years to step up,” Antulov said. “And you hope the players that you bring in integrate quickly enough.”
Donaldson, James Fraser of Penticton and Dylan Hooper of Winnipeg are among returnees who will be counted on to pick up offensive slack.
Daniel Sagno, a midfielder/forward from Winnipeg, played one season at NCAA Division 1 San Diego State after graduating from the Vancouver Whitecaps’ residency program. Midfielder Jordano Pinto and forward Stefan Kamner are Lower Mainland products. Christopher Rass is a 6-foot-2 midfielder from Austria. Dodi Sharma, a winger/attacking midfielder from Toronto, brings NCAA Division 2 experience to the club. Centre back Callum Etches adds to the team’s ample English flavour.
They are among new recruits, some of whom may not have considered playing for the WolfPack just a few years ago.
“We’ve got a good group of lads,” Banton said. “You can see what’s happening. We’re very young, but it’s a very exciting time.”
Defender Harry Coles of England and Jan Pirretas Glasmacher of Spain round out the Pack’s international contingent. Goalkeeper Oli Jumeau is from Lancashire, England, but has Canadian citizenship.
Kamloops products include returnees Donaldson, Zahk Barone and Kolton Storzuk and rookies Denzel Marican and Adam Calne.
The WolfPack will begin pre-season play with matches against UBC Okanagan and Langara College this weekend in Vancouver.
“That was definitely a tough start last year and we never really recovered from that until the end, but I feel like John and us, we won’t make that same mistake again,” Banton said.
A trip to Fresno, Calif., planned to avoid potential wildfire season in Kamloops, will run from Aug. 19 to Aug. 23 and afford bonding time to a roster featuring 13 new players. The Pack will play a few exhibition matches against U.S. competition.
“For the guys coming back again, they know they can do it,” Antulov said. “To come back and show that mettle last year, that steel and that fight, for me, was huge.
“We’re only six years in. That’s still very young in Canada West. The fact that we’ve been able to do the things we’ve been able to do in a short period of time is fantastic.”
The regular season begins on Aug. 31, when the defending conference champions, the UBC Thunderbirds, come to town.
Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. at Hillside Stadium.
For a look ahead to the WolfPack women’s soccer team’s season, pick up a copy of this Friday’s edition of KTW.