It’s a year later than the players and coaches would have liked, but the game is finally changing for the University of Winnipeg soccer program.
After two seasons dominating the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference — going undefeated in men’s and women’s play both years — the Wesmen are set to join the Canada West conference of Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
The level of competition is about to go through the roof, and the women’s team can’t wait for Sept. 7, when they open their regular season against their crosstown rivals from the University of Manitoba.
"We knew we should be there (in CIS)," said Serafina Trunzo, a midfielder from Linden Woods who has been with the program since it was launched in 2010. "It’s exciting to be able to travel like the basketball and volleyball teams."
Two years in the MCAC — playing against the likes of Canadian Mennonite University and Providence University College — gave the program a foundation, but now things get really interesting.
"There’s more pressure now on the players to do well," said head coach Mick Gale. "Once we started with the pre-season, they had to switch off everything else and think their one channel is their training channel."
That means no time for part-time jobs anymore; just school, soccer or sleep.
The Wesmen played a handful of exhibition games last year against CIS and NCAA Division II teams, and took part in a pre-season tournament last month at U of M, so they know what they’re up against.
"It’s a bit of an eye-opener," Gale said.
Sheri Hince, a St. Vital resident making the move from midfield to striker this year, said the on-field challenge is just as daunting as the extra commitment that’s now required.
"It’s a lot different," said the 22-year-old, who also joined the team in 2010. "It’s a quicker pace, and definitely more aggressive."
Gale and his players all agree that qualifying for the conference playoffs — eight of the 10 Canada West teams qualify — would make it a successful first season.
"That’s a huge goal for us," Hince said. "It’s going to be difficult."
While most CIS teams have 20 or more players on their roster, the Wesmen will be going with 18 this year. Gale believes by giving everyone an opportunity to play he’ll have a more complete team.
The move has also changed recruiting for the better. Gale has added players from B.C.,
Quebec and Minnesota, and is scouring the province for players who aren’t known commodities in the local soccer community.
"I’ve got to look that way," he said. "There’s kids getting full rides in the U.S. out in some of these places, so there’s got to be something happening in these districts."
As for local players, there is already a rivalry forming with the Bisons for both recruitment and on-field competition.
What would an upset win over the more established program mean to the Wesmen?
"It would show we’re here," Trunzo said. "It would be an eye-opener for everyone else."
The Wesmen face the Bisons at 6 p.m. on Sept. 7 at the Winnipeg Soccer Complex. The Wesmen take on the University of Northern British Columbia on Sept. 8 at 4 p.m., also at the WSC.