The early 2019 press release might not have seemed significant to a casual observer: ‘Thirteen Oshawa area soccer players commit to play for the Algoma Thunderbirds Women’s Varsity in September 2019…’. Algoma University, Sault Ste. Marie is a small undergraduate-only institution in what is widely perceived as a Canadian U Sports wasteland. Bigger schools, and better established athletics programs tend to attract the best talent – no surprises there.
Plus … being a student-athlete anywhere in Canada, in any sport is a demanding undertaking. Time, training, travel, academic obligations, part-time jobs, and fatigue are the not so glamorous realities. Ours is not the NCAA world of multi-million-dollar university coaches, training facilities rivalling any elite professional club, and full athletic scholarships. We also largely avoid the shoe contract corruption, SAT testing shenanigans, and other hypocrisies that cast such long shadows on American post-secondary sports’ integrity. In Canada, modest university athletic scholarships are a welcome benefit, but they do not define a student-athlete’s existence.
Algoma U moved from Ontario college competition to the university ranks without much fanfare. There were few expectations that the Thunderbirds would be a threat in most team U Sport leagues. Building a better student-athlete experience, and creating opportunities to achieve personal and team success – legitimate goals for any credible, caring post-secondary institution. The Algoma administration and its athletic department embraced them. A cynic might argue that these objectives are a poor substitute for wins, and championships…. but the cynic does not understand the Canadian student-athlete model.
The 2018 season results (and those from every previous season since Algoma joined the Ontario University Athletics women’s soccer league) seemed statistically bleak – a single draw, 1 point, in 16 OUA games. The schools that perennially enjoy success would not be faulted for counting an Algoma game as a win before kickoff. Committed coaching, and hard working players are not always enough.
Recruiting multiple players from a single club team to a Canadian university sports program is rare – 13 such recruits is utterly unique in U Sports history. The Thunderbirds’ leadership decided to break their old recruiting mold. A group of young women who had played high level under-18 soccer together for the well-regarded Oshawa Turul club were keen to keep going. The Thunderbird coaches thought they could integrate new with returning players, and still maintain team harmony going forward.
The opening OUA weekend results did not immediately inspire optimism. The new-look Thunderbirds lost back to back games at home to Western, a traditionally strong program. Same old, same old? Ten goals allowed, none scored. And on to the University of Windsor for the September 7 and 8 games. An inauspicious 5 – 0 Algoma loss to open the weekend… and then a next day turnaround. The Thunderbirds decisively beat the Lancers, a 4-1 triumph. In one day, the Thunderbirds had more on-field success than they achieved in the previous five seasons … something to celebrate.
At every level, coaches talk about the need to instill a winning culture in their teams. This culture is a subtle, wonderful amalgam of talent, skill development, tactics, team unity, energy, effort, and enthusiasm. It must be cultivated, and never assumed. There are signs that just maybe the Algoma soccer women are finding and defining their team culture, and who knows? A unique recruiting approach that might yet yield its own special rewards at a school that one could never fault for trying.
Bryan is an award-winning writer and commentator based in Sault Ste. Marie, where he is a partner at UFE Tagona Press (Millworks). Bryan has passion for sport, and he has coached high school, elite junior women’s (U19), and Canadian college basketball teams since 1985.