The Muskie boys’ soccer team kicked off what promises to be an exciting season this afternoon with an exhibition game in Rainy River.
The squad then travels to Winnipeg on Friday afternoon to compete in the annual St. John’s Ravenscourt invitational tournament over the weekend.
Muskie head coach Shane Beckett is excited about the season, citing a strong group of returning veterans, coupled with a good crop of rookies, as reasons to be extremely optimistic about not only this year’s team but future ones, too.
“I think our starting 11 is probably capable of winning the [NorWOSSA] gold medal if they choose to play the way they can,” Beckett remarked. “I think with the development that we’re going to do with the young guys, we’ll be strong for years to come.”
Beckett was understandably coy in discussing the strengths of this Muskie team prior to the start of the season. But several things are readily apparent to anyone who watches the team practice—this is a well-organized squad that possesses great speed.
Beckett said he’s looking forward to trying to capitalize on the skill he has on his roster.
“We’re going to try some new systems and formations to see if we can utilize those strengths of our team,” he remarked. “We’re really fast on the wings.”
Although the team only has been practising together since late March, several players already have impressed their head coach with their strong play.
Third-year starter Steve Boileau will be counted on to provide leadership despite the fact he’s only in Grade 11. Meanwhile, Shane Ikert, a transfer student from Rainy River High School, has made his presence felt immediately in practice providing outstanding speed on the wing.
And Grade 9 rookie Mitch Cain has impressed Beckett with his great size and on-the-ball skills.
Despite all the talent on this year’s team, though, a few issues will need to be addressed before the games start counting if this edition of the black-and-gold is going to compete for the league title and possibly a berth at the all-Ontarios.
There is a lot of good, young talent playing this season, however, what they have in talent they lack in real game experience. Beckett understands the exhibition season will be critical in the development of his rookie players.
“We’re going to have to work on getting the rookies some game time so they can be ready and we can have some depth on the bench,” he reasoned.
And then there’s the question of who is going to start in goal for the Muskies. The team lacks an experienced number-one keeper to begin the season, though Beckett is happy with the two players he currently has vying for the starting job.
“We have a two-year back-up who could be the starter,” he noted. “We have a brand new Grade 12 who could be the starter. And then we’re working on the development of the two.
“We really need to focus on that part of our defensive game, and just make sure we have strength on the bench in case there is [an] injury or something like that,” he stressed.
Luckily for the Muskies, they have a full slate of exhibition games to evaluate the talent on their roster under game conditions, and to try out different strategies and player combinations, before the NorWOSSA tournament.
Assistant coach Jodi Easton is particularly looking forward to the tournament in Winnipeg this weekend.
Aside from competing against some of the top programs in Manitoba, the tournament offers an excellent opportunity to do some team-building prior to the regular season—something Easton has stressed in team meetings.
“We stress that we’re a team first,” he remarked. “We’re not individuals.
“It [the tournament] is a good way start,” he added. “Some of these guys are in Grade 9 and have never been on a school team before.”
An added incentive for the Muskies heading into this season involves off-season changes made to the rules governing how teams qualify for OFSAA.
In years past, the NorWOSSA champs advanced to NWOSSAA (against the champs from Thunder Bay and the North Shore of Superior) for a shot at the all-Ontarios.
But over the winter, the region was divided into three classes. ‘A’ includes some of the smaller schools (such as Rainy River) while ‘AA’ features Fort Frances, Kenora, and Dryden.
The ‘AAA’ division is made up of teams from Thunder Bay.
Under this new system, the top team in the three divisions will advance to OFSAA, meaning the Muskies need only beat two other schools to earn a spot at the provincial championships.
The rule changes have altered Beckett’s expectations for the black-and-gold this season.
“I think something that is very obtainable for us, and would really make this a special season, would be to try to go undefeated at NorWOSSA and to try and make it to the round of eight at OFSAA.
“That would be outstanding for our program,” he said.