Heat soccer kicks into first Canada West season
The volleyball and basketball programs on Kelowna's UBC Okanagan campus have some company.
With the Heat soccer squads set to make their Canada West debuts this weekend, there will now be six UBCO teams competing at the country's highest level of university athletics.
The Heat men and women will take to the pitch for this first time as members of the CIS, as they battle the UNBC Timberwolves on Saturday and Sunday in Prince George.
"We're really excited about this, our goal from the beginning was to get all our programs into Canada West, so to have soccer now included is very satisfying," said UBC Okanagan Director of Athletics, Rob Johnson. "We worked very hard to gain admission into Canada West, and to see the teams getting ready to play is very rewarding."
Moving up from B.C's PACWEST conference will be a "big step competitively," according to Johnson, as the Canada West conference has been realigned into two divisions.
UBC Okanagan will play in the new seven-team B.C. division of Canada West which Johnson calls arguably "the toughest conference in the country."
Still, Johnson said coaches Dante Zanatta (men) and Claire Paterson (women) have put plenty of legwork into readying the teams and is confident both will represent the institution well during their inaugural Canada West season.
"Our coaches have been working hard, preparing and recruiting," he said. "It's a challenge because you are recruiting players with the kind of personalities that want to build something and be part of something new. You may not win right away, but it's a chance to take pride in starting to build something special. "
Under the guidance of Zanatta for the past three seasons, the Heat has been building steadily towards their CIS debut. And despite what is still a relatively young squad, the head coach likes the group that's been assembled for Canada West play in 2014.
Veterans Austin Jones, Dylan Abbott, Manny Straith and Harry Shrimpton make up the core of the leadership group for the Heat and will be depended to guide the team into new territory.
"We're expecting those guys to show the young players the difference and what's required to play at this level," said Zanatta. "They know what's expected of them and they're prepared to help this program take strides forward."
Led by the defending champion UBC Thunderbirds, the Heat will play in a very competitive conference which also includes U Vic, Fraser Valley, Trinity Western, UNBC and Thompson Rivers.
Just four of seven teams will make the playoffs, but Zanatta is still setting the bar high.
"In a perfect world we'd like to win it all, of course, but really we just want to see the program continue to take steps forward," he said. "Realistically, we'd like to make the playoffs and think we can make the top four. It's the first year for a lot of the these players, and it will be an eye-opening experience when it comes to the quality of play. But if the coaching staff does their job and the players play like they're capable, I like our chances."
Claire Paterson's Heat is coming off a successful conclusion to its stint in the PacWest conference with provincial medals in each of the last three years—two silver and one bronze—and hope to carry that momentum to the next level.
"We know it is going to be very challenging but we are all extremely excited to see how we measure up against very strong programs," said Paterson. "We expect that we will be stretched as a team but want to rise to the challenge. We are aiming to be a competitive program right from the start building upon the momentum and success we have had in the PacWest over the past four years."
As always, first-year programs rely on the experience and leadership of veteran players to carry the load. The 2014 Heat will be no different.
"Captains Hayley Carlson and Marissa Klees will be instrumental for us this season as they help lead the group to that next level," said Paterson. "Our veterans and previous CIS players Christine Tallon (keeper) and Paige Howes have the knowledge and experience of playing at the next level and will help us in the transition."
Paterson expects Kirsten Dodds and Courtney Hemmerling to also be key components for the Heat.
Both Heat teams will play their home openers on Friday, Sept. 12 against Fraser Valley and Saturday, Sept. 13 against Trinity Western. The women kick off at 5 p.m. each night at UBCO's Nonis Field, while the men play at 7 p.m.