Breaking away from the middle of the pack
by Randy Pascal
The Laurentian Voyageurs men’s soccer team was the very epitome of a middle of the road crew in 2016.
With their record of 6-8-2 (20 pts), the blue and gold found themselves sitting in fifth place in the OUA East Division, smack dab as the median in a
nine team loop.
They finished regular season play five points behind the Queen’s Gaels, in fourth, and four points better than the Trent Excalibur, in
sixth. Even more striking was the disparity when it came to the head to head matchups with schools above or below them in the standings.
The Voyageurs made hay versus the bottom four, posting a mark of 6-0-2, a huge improvement from 2015, when the team missed the playoffs, giving up points
to teams which, on paper, appeared to be over-matched.
Unfortunately, the L.U. lads were absolutely woeful in facing the upper echelon, losing eight straight games against the top four and outscored by a
whopping 21-3 margin. All in all, the situation allows coach Carlo Castrechino, rapidly approaching his 20th year at the helm of the OUA squad, to
easily cherry-pick the aspects of 2016 he would like to see repeated, and those that he wishes to discard.
“When the 2016 season started, I remember telling (assistant coach) Tony (Tagliafierro) that we had to beat those teams below us to make the
playoffs,” said Castrechino, following a pre-season tune-up against the U17 Dragon Force Academy team from Bradford on Friday. “Now, for us to
advance even more, it’s time for us to take points off teams like Queen’s, Carleton, U of T, Ryerson.”
In the mind of the former scoring sensation with the team he now coaches, there is absolutely reason to believe this goal is achievable. “For the
majority, we were in those games,” he said. “Those teams have a lot of skill, a lot of quality, but with the team we have this year, I think we’re going to
push them pretty good.”
Castrechino will benefit, again this year, from a key core building block, as two-time team MVP Connor Vande Weghe returns for his third season
with the Voyageurs. “I think we have the best goalie in Ontario,” noted Castrechino, speaking of the St Benedict Secondary School graduate who was
named Amateur Male Athlete of the Year at the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame Dinner in June.
“He led the OUA in saves – I would not trade him for any goalie in the OUA,” Castrechino stressed. Vande Weghe will need to be in top form as only half
of his back line returns, with Nick Franke and Cole Giffin both graduated.
The interior of that defence corps revolves around local product Zach Gallo, with Thunder Bay native Liam Ezzard joining at his side. A
transplanted midfielder from one year ago, Aaron DeSousa filled in admirably in 2016 at left fullback, earning his starting position this year,
while top-end recruit Daniel Correa hopes to have fully recovered from a knee injury which torpedoed his freshman season with the team last fall.
Depth on the defence comes courtesy of the likes of Kieran Ezzard, John Hick, rookie Roman Lovrencec and walk-on Domynik Huot, a
graduate of Sacré-Coeur who transferred over from Collège Boréal.
Because of the formation that Laurentian utilized in 2016, the defence often enjoyed plenty of support, as Castrechino sacrificed the opportunity to
counter-attack for the sake of keeping games close. A pair of key returnees are allowing him to tinker with that approach, just a smidge, in 2017, as
Nico Correa and Mackenzy Kropa are entrusted with the responsibility of acting as holding mids.
“We’re using two central midfielders that are more defensive minded,” said Castrechino. “With our system, it if works to how we want it, we should be
able to keep games close, but our counter-attack game should not involve just one player, but three or four players this year. That said, we have a
tendency to be lazy, at times, and that hurt us last year.”
Adding some punch to the midfield complement are veterans Evan Stronach and Ayden Meilleur, with freshman Carver Grenon also
expected to see his fair share of field time. If injuries become a concern, recruits Jacob Gramenega, Brad Mastrangelo and sophomore Sam Daoust
are expected to fill the void.
Up front, the team has graduated their only OUA all-star from 2016 in the form of Matt Wilkes. The transition up top will see Sev Kraja
make the move from midfielder to striker, with Dean Pizolinas (two goals last year) back in the mix. Castrechino also foresees an opportunity for
Sault Ste Marie native and first year Laurentian student Kristian Shuttleworth to garner some valuable experience.
The Northern Ontario speedster, who captured the 100m, 200m and triple jump in 2014 at the SSM City Championships in 2014 while attending Superior
Heights, displayed his combination of size, skill and quickness in scoring one of the two Laurentian goals on Friday.
“I’ve got the feeling this year that we are going to create more,” suggested Castrechino. “I think we have the quality, and we have the depth this year
that we haven’t had in years past. It sounds so basic, but when we have possession of the ball, we have to score some goals. We did last year against the
small teams, but we really struggled against the big clubs.”
And while he recognizes all too well the intensity of the schedule that he and his team will endure for the next eight to ten weeks, Castrechino is not
ready, quite yet, to step away from the fold. “I don’t really get involved too much in local soccer, except to help coach my little girl’s team, so the
batteries are recharged come August,” he said. “”I’m excited to get going, and I’m still having fun.”
The Voyageurs will open the 2017 campaign with four straight games on the road, facing the Ryerson Rams and U of T Blues on August 26th and
27th, and visiting the Queen's Gaels and RMC Paladins in Kingston the very next weekend.
The home opener is set for Saturday, September 9th at 2:00 p.m., with the northern rival Nipissing Lakers providing the opposition.