Soccer X-Women poised to take next step

File Photo - courtesy Vaughan Merchant
File Photo - courtesy Vaughan Merchant

Young, but battled-tested side seeking AUS banner

By Corey LeBlanc

Antigonish, NS - A young and talented STFX X-Women soccer program came within one victory of capturing an Atlantic University Sport (AUS) championship in 2021.

One year later, a more experienced team – bolstered by an infusion of first-year talent – is hungry for another opportunity to hoist a conference banner.

"We had some early success," veteran X-Women head coach Graham Kennedy says of last year's line-up – a "young and athletic" one – that dropped a 1-0 decision to the Acadia Axewomen in the title match.

The White and Blue finished fourth (7-4-1) in 2021 before collecting wins over the Mount Allison Mounties (quarterfinal) and higher-seeded Memorial Sea-Hawks (semifinal), the latter in the thrilling shootout (7-6) – to punch their ticket to the final.

When it comes to the 2022 campaign, Kennedy notes that the X-Women newcomers "match up nicely" – are forming great chemistry – with the returning student-athletes.

STFX will boast 18 players in either their first or second year of varsity eligibility.

"We are still not very experienced, but we are talented," Kennedy says.

As for keys to success, the Antigonish native explains the "biggest thing" will be the X-Women's ability (and success in) "attacking in the attacking half."

"We are adept in getting it from our half to theirs," he continues, but the key will be finishing off with goals. Kennedy stresses that what the X-Women accomplish in the final third of the pitch "will decide things for us" this season.

If teams employ "low defense," he explains, it will be crucial that his charges "find the key to unlock that door, so to speak."

Reaching that level – Kennedy agrees – is often easier said than done. "It takes a long time to get that to click," Kennedy says of "developing relationships" between players.

Noting it is a "slow process," he adds, "It takes lots and lots and lots of reps."

So, if the X-Women are able to develop that "flow and flair" in the attacking zone, Kennedy says fans will know that they are "clicking" and playing at a high level.

Noting their size, Kennedy expects his team to be "dangerous on set pieces," particularly if they are strong in their deliveries. "We will only get better in that area as the season goes on," he says.

While the X-Women "should be able to score goals," Kennedy notes that the ability to prevent them is a work in progress. "We are heading in the right direction," he says, while pointing out that the goals they have surrendered in the pre-season, so far, were "preventable."

When asked who needs to lead the way – if the White and Blue is going to have a successful campaign – Kennedy didn't hesitate.

"She likes big pressure games – she excels," Kennedy offers of veteran forward Amanda Smith (Ottawa, ON), a perennial top scorer in the conference, who was an AUS first-team all-star and All-Canadian in 2021.

He notes – since she exploded offensively – opponents have "thrown a blanket over her."

Nevertheless, Smith has continued to put together an impressive offensive resume. Describing her as a "tremendous leader," Kennedy praises her for being one of the X-Women's hardest-working student-athletes; something that sets the bar high for every player with the program.

"They look up to her," he says of Smith's influence on her STFX teammates.

Joining Smith as a key veteran cog for the X-Women is senior goalkeeper Christina Gentile (Laval, QC), who Kennedy notes has "really come into her own." She was sensational in the 2021 shootout semifinal victory over the Sea-Hawks.

"Christina may not be the biggest, but I think she is the most technically sound keeper in the AUS," he says.

Kennedy adds Gentile's ability to handle the ball benefits the X-Women's possession game. The X mentor uses the word "imperative" to describe the importance of Smith and Gentile having strong seasons.

"She brings a cool head to the field, which is so valuable," Kennedy says of Jenna Burrows (New Glasgow, NS), a talented midfielder who is returning for a fifth season.

STFX also returns a collection of sophomores that made an immediate impact in their first AUS campaigns, including the sister duo of Emma and Abby Steen of Stittsville, Ontario. Abby – a defender – earned a second-team all-star nod as a conference freshman.

"They are going to play a big role for us," Kennedy says of the siblings.

There is also Caitlin Crichton (Ottawa, ON) – a second-year midfielder – who the X mentor believes is one of the best players in the conference at her position.

Noting that she is younger than some of this season's X-Women freshmen, Kennedy says sophomore forward Brynn Jurus (Ancaster, ON) brings size and strength – not to mention technical ability – to the table.

"We have a strong core," he offers, one that he suggests – as importantly as anything – is "dedicated and hard-working."

As for newcomers, Kennedy notes that defender Sammy Macdonald (Calgary, AB) has played "really good minutes" during the pre-season. "She is skillful and can run," he says.

Midfielder Meghan Cole (Moncton, NB) recently represented her province at the 2022 Canada Summer Games. "She is off to a strong start – been really sharp," Kennedy informs.

The list of freshmen to watch also includes forward Aidan Miller (Chilliwack, BC) and defender Meg Hamilton (Greely, ON).

Another Bluenose product – defender Rylin Matheson (Dartmouth, NS) – a member of Team Nova Scotia at the recent Games is expected to make an immediate impact. "She is a tremendous passer out of the back," Kennedy notes.

He says another "freshman to watch" this season is defender Meghan Lineger (Comox, BC).

When asked about expectations for 2022 – particularly if a return to the AUS championship match is in the cards, Kennedy offers that there are "six teams that could win" the conference banner, noting the defending champion Axewomen have returned everyone, while the 2020 title holders – the Cape Breton University (CBU) Capers – have fashioned a stellar recruiting class. He also notes his X-Women had a battle with the Dalhousie Tigers in the pre-season, a match determined by an own goal.

"We have a really tough schedule," Kennedy notes of their early opponents – starting with the Axewomen.

Although he predicts a "tough" and highly competitive campaign, he says he would be "disappointed" if the White and Blue did not garner a top-three finish in the regular season.

There is an overriding factor – "the big if" as Kennedy describes – that could upend everything: health. "If we have everyone available at the end of the season – and into the playoffs – I think that we can at least equal last year's output," he says.

The X-Women played to a 2-0-1 record in the pre-season, earning victories over the Dalhousie Tigers (2-1) and UPEI Panthers (4-1) and tying Cape Breton (1-1).

STFX will open the AUS season on home turf on Friday, Sept. 9 – at 5 p.m. – in a 2021 championship game rematch against the Axewomen in Antigonish.

Two days later – on Sunday, Sept. 11 – the Panthers will visit STFX Stadium. Game time is 1 p.m.

The X-Women will be shooting for a fourth AUS crown – the first conference banner for the program since 2016.