While most teams would accept a bronze medal in provincials as a successful seasons, the Lakeland Rustlers men’s soccer team look at last year’s third place finish in Alberta as a harsh lesson.
After finishing on top of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference’s (ACAC) South Division with a 9-1-2 record, Lakeland earned a first round bye in the provincial tournament and needed only a single victory in the semifinals to put them into the gold medal game, as well as book them a trip to nationals as the ACAC had two entrants in 2014.
Unfortunately, in their semifinals matchup against the NAIT Ooks, Lakeland gave up three goals en route to a 3-1 loss. To make matters worse, Lakeland was the host team for the tournament which granted them a free entry into the provincial final, meaning they only needed to win at the right time to get them through to the national round.
“Hopefully we have learned,” said Rustlers head coach Kevin Wagner. “We weren’t strong enough mentally and weren’t strong enough physically and we weren’t quite mature enough. We were good enough, just not mature enough. Most of the guys are back so hopefully they are a little but wiser and the players we picked up are older in key spots.”
The men’s soccer program is reaching their peak in their recruiting cycle, with Wagner saying the team should be highly competitive for the next seasons and a few years to come. It has put their expectations incredibly high heading into this year’s soccer season which is set to kick off on Sept. 11 against the SAIT Trojans, the team they beat in the bronze medal game at the provincial tournament last year.
But Lakeland isn’t going to be satisfied with just a bronze this season, and when the provincial tournament rolls around at the end of October at Keyano College, the Rustlers are thinking gold only, and a trip to nationals in Champlain College in St. Lambert, Que.
“We are wanting to right what was wrong from last season,” said midfielder Braydon Bretzer. “It was heartbreaking not to make nationals but this year, Kevin already expects it to be better then our team last year, so the expectation is to win it all.”
Lakeland opened their training camp last week before taking in some exhibition games over the weekend. Wagner called this year’s roster the most mature he has ever had, however, the challenge will still be getting the players in the right mentality before the season starts in order to make a successful run at a provincial championship.
With such a level of maturity in this year’s teams, it should keep the ceiling high for the future at Lakeland in the men’s soccer program, as the maturity and ability of this year’s verterans should rub off into the rookies. There are still challenges every season in recruiting, and Wagner had to send over 3,500 emails to get down to the players he wanted on his roster, but in the end, he has a team that isn’t just skilled on the pitch, but also high calibre students and people all-around.
“This is the most mature team I will ever have,” said Wagner. “We have to try and get the right mentality of player who is in the right academic program and buys in to what we are doing and enjoys it. Personality is important and the type of person they are in important in recruiting, as well as their ability to play.”