By Thomas Becker
It's often said there's no substitute for experience. And the UPEI Women's Soccer Panthers are leaning on that adage as they look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
After hitting the refresh button following the 2015 season, head coach Graeme McDonald recruited 17 rookies ahead of 2016 campaign – building a foundation for the years to come.
Of course there were growing pains, as the young Panthers started the 12-game circuit with four straight loses, en route to a 3-6-3 record. But to say the season was a waste, would be an error in judgment. In fact, 2016 was a success in many ways. In the latter part of the season, the Panthers finished with a respectable 3-2-3 record and narrowly missed the postseason by just two points.
"Experience is what a lot of the great teams are built around," McDonald said. "You can't coach it, you can only offer it to them."
And McDonald did just that. 15 of the 17 rookies had the chance to experience what it was like to play at the AUS level. 11 of those players played at least 10 of the 12 contests.
So is there value placed on experience? McDonald certainly thinks so.
"If you don't know what to expect and haven't experienced it, then there's a lack of understanding and possibly motivation."
Missing out on the postseason was heartbreaking, especially for the girls who put it all out there, McDonald said. But with heartbreak comes motivation and the Panthers are looking stronger than ever.
"It's a great motivator moving forward," he said. "The girls now know they have to come in this year and step up their game. They know what they did last year wasn't enough."
During the summer, McDonald recruited seven new players to an already young Panther nucleus. Five of them –Rachel Green, Kamren Chaisson, Lauren Clark, Ali Muise and Laura Burge – gained valuable experience playing for team P.E.I. at the Canada Games in Winnipeg and figure to play vital roles for UPEI as well.
They'll join a strong contingent of Islanders, who make up 75 per cent of the team.
"It's important that we have a strong P.E.I. identity. As Islanders, we know they work hard, but they're just as talented as well."
Now that the personnel is in place, McDonald is relying on his second and third-year players peppered throughout his lineup to take that next step in their development, if their playoff aspirations are to become reality.
"If you can build a strong connection between them all, I think that's when they start to learn they can rely on each other and build something special."
Led by captain Kelly Green's leadership and another season of Danielle Younker, Jenna Mae Ellsworth, Raine Easton and keeper Amanda Stanyer, the Panthers form a formidable backline looking to improve on the 21 goals allowed last season.
The offence, meanwhile, looks poised to take another step forward with key adjustments made by the coaching staff during training camp, which has earned the full support and confidence of his team.
"I don't want to reveal all our secrets, but tactically we'll have a higher rate of possession and a lot more attacking opportunities."
"I see them making a huge contribution this year and getting those goals that we need," McDonald said. "I think they're ready to take on that responsibility."
It's taken some time, but there's an unquestionable confidence flowing through UPEI's clubhouse that hasn't been felt in years. But is a postseason berth on the horizon? Only time will tell.
"This year, UPEI will make an impact on the league."
Sept. 9 (3 p.m) vs St. F.X.
Sept. 16 (3 p.m.) vs Acadia
Sept. 23 (1 p.m.) vs Saint Mary's
Oct. 1 (1 p.m.) vs Cape Breton
Oct. 15 (1 p.m.) vs Dalhousie
Oct. 21 (1 p.m.) vs Memorial
For the full schedule click here