TRU WolfPack soccer coach Pennington seeing positives in pandemic pause

“It’s not ideal, but if you said to me, ‘You’re going to have to do this,’ this is probably the year to do it,” Pennington said. “This is an opportunity to change our identity a little bit. We’re really excited about the quality of players coming in.”

U Sports standings will not be kept this season in soccer and there are no championships up for grabs, all having fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet training intensity was high this week at Hillside Stadium, the TRU WolfPack women reacting to drill instructions from second-year head coach Mark Pennington.

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Keen interest from outsiders cannot be expected, but this is a vital campaign in-house.

Pennington’s first full recruiting class took to the recently installed Hillside turf on Monday, nine new faces that should light a fire under veterans looking to keep their spot in the starting 11.

Meaningful games, standings-wise, will not happen, but there will still be matches, perhaps even more than there would have been had 2020 not been ravaged by the pandemic.

BC Soccer on Aug. 24 moved into Play Phase 2, which allows for cohorts of four teams to play full-contact matches within the group. After a two-week break, new cohorts can be formed and play can resume.

“It’s not ideal, but if you said to me, ‘You’re going to have to do this,’ this is probably the year to do it,” Pennington said. “This is an opportunity to change our identity a little bit. We’re really excited about the quality of players coming in.”

Pennington said details are being ironed out, but he expects to be squaring off against the likes of UBC Okanagan of Kelowna and perhaps the UNBC Timberwolves of Prince George within a month. Local youth teams may also provide opposition.

Rookies who might not have seen much of the field had Pennington been focused on qualifying for the playoffs will certainly get a look in this modified format.

Student-athletes in sports without U Sports championships this season will not lose a year of eligibility and can receive athletic financial aid (scholarships).

So, Robin Price, for example, the Smithers product who should be exhausting her final year of eligibility in 2020, will have the option to return in 2021.

“When we first found out [the season was cancelled], we were pretty disappointed,” Price said. “But with our team, we’re growing. Last year, we had a pretty good season of growth. This year, it means we have so much more time to prepare and show people the talent we have.”

Pennington inherited a team that was 7-30-4 in the three seasons prior to his arrival and 13-47-7 since joining U Sports in 2014, a span during which it compiled a minus-122 goal differential.

TRU, which finished the 2019 season with a record of 2-8-4, was 2-4-3 in its final nine games and in the playoff race until the final weekend of the season.

By 2021, Pennington should be fielding a team — his team — with a good mix of veterans and quasi-rookies with experience. The bar for measuring success will be higher.

Until then, the Pack will make the best of a bad situation, with players aiming to impress the bench boss by practising hard and competing vigorously in exhibition matches.

“It is easy to get ramped up for these practices,” said Jessye Large, the first-year forward from Lake Country. “As a recruit coming in, this is actually a good scenario. The first year can often be stressful,. Now we have some time to get into it and join the same pace as them.”

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