Silver with eyes of gold
By Davie Wong, Sports Editor
Coming into the 2016 season, the Royals women’s soccer team had a lot to live up to. Last season’s squad was the defending PACWEST Provincial Champions, defending regular season champions, and the fourth best team in the country. But the Royals were missing a lot from the team that made history last year.
Their top two goal scorers were gone. Their experienced goalkeeper was gone as well. Much of the defence line had been changed, in one way or another. And the midfield looked very different. Simply put, this was not the squad that made history last year, but a new rendition under the same man who shaped the previous squad, Chris Laxton.
Coming into this year, there were so many storylines to follow. Who would fill in the spot of Marni McMillan and Danae Harding? Who would fill the defensive void in the goalkeeper position? How would Samantha Kell and Michelle Wessa adapt to being named captain?
As it would happen, the regular season answered all of those questions. Let’s start from the back and go up. One of the big changes during the offseason was the shutting down of the Kwantlen Polytechnic University Athletics Program. The change left nearly a hundred athletes without a team. And while some simply moved on with their lives, others found a new home at Douglas, with the Royals Athletics Program.
One of the player the players brought into the Royals squad was Chantalle Bracken. The former KPU starting goalkeeper was entering her third-year of PACWEST competition, and brought to the table a bout of experience that was sorely lacking in the Royals goalkeeper line. Ellie Langr was the other veteran goalkeeper, but with her entering only her second year, and having limited playing time behind Rebecca Mainardi last year, Laxton felt the need to make the move for a more veteran keeper.
Although a veteran, Bracken’s spot was never guaranteed, and she had two rookies behind her pushing for playing time. Alexa Gazzola and Nicole Scott did an excellent job of keeping Bracken on toes. When it came to announce the final 18 for the home opener, it was a bit of a surprise to many to see Alexa Gazzola lining up behind Chantalle Bracken, as many had expected to see Ellie Langr in that spot. However, Gazzola had the chance to prove her naysayers wrong early in the season.
While playing against their island rivals, the VIU Mariners, Gazzola came in for Bracken, who sustained an injury during play. She impressed all with her play and came back the next game against the Quest Kermodes on the starting 15. Her outstanding play earned her the clean sheet, and her first win in her PACWEST starting debut.
Bracken got the next couple of starts, but after a blowout against the Mariners, Gazzola had the chance to make yet another lasting impression. She ended the Mariners onslaught of goals but her team could not catch their rivals, falling to them 3–1. Gazzola had another starting chance, once again against Quest, and helped her team to a draw. Her play earned her a start in her biggest game to date, against the Capilano Blues. She gave her team a standout performance, helping them to a 2–1 win. The Royals then faced the number one team at the time, the Langara Falcons, in back to back games. Gazzola started the first game and kept the Falcons off the sheet, and started the second game to follow, keeping the sheet clean once again, shutting out one of the best offensive teams in the League in back to back games.
She continued her stellar play throughout the season and was awarded for her efforts with a call-up to the PACWEST All-Star team as the conference’s best goalkeeper. She ended the season only allowing four goals in eight games played, four clean sheets, and was the only keeper in the PACWEST with an average goals per 90 minutes under one, with 0.57.
In terms of her defensive line, she had plenty of help in front. Sarah Strelau and Samantha Kell quickly became one of the most solid centre defenders in the league, and the Royals’ fullbacks were ever present. In front of them, Michelle Wessa has shaped into one of the best two-way midfielders in the PACWEST. Her defensive nature gives the Royals some added dominance in the fight for possession, and her hard shot has given her more than a handful of chances, rewarding her with three goals this season. Wessa’s play earned her a call-up to the PACWEST All-Star team as well.
Going further up, Taylor Wettig has easily become one of the Royals’ best central midfielders. A KPU transfer, Wettig has only gotten better this season, and even put away the game-winning goal in the PACWEST Provincial Championship semi-finals.
In terms of scoring, the Royals have found it from an abundance of players from all over the pitch. However, specifically and perhaps unsurprisingly, most have come from the Royals attacking midfielder and forward combination. Mikayla Hamilton showed signs of being the prodigy forward to follow up the reign of Danae Harding, but came out of the gates fairly inconsistent. After two goals in five games, some were beginning to wonder if the sophomore curse had come for the ailing Hamilton. But she found her form midway through the season, exploding for five goals in the span of three days. Her seven goals this season set her as the second highest goal scorer in the PACWEST, and earned her a spot on the PACWEST All-Star team.
But the biggest story is perhaps the emergence of Andrea Perrotta. Perrotta spent most of last year injured, so she never really got a chance to slot in for the Royals. However, this year, she slotted into the spot that Marni McMillan left vacant. Playing as an attacking midfielder, Perrotta is a playmaker with a deadly shot. Her sniper’s aim has made her the Royals set piece taker, and she has lit the PACWEST on fire this year. She scored a total of eight goals this year, with three of them coming in a match against the Quest Kermodes, making her the only Royal with a hat-trick. When she wasn’t scoring, she was assisting, dictating, and creating chances for her team.
Her stellar play has earned her the PACWEST Player of the Year award, as well as being named onto the PACWEST All-Star team. She was ever-present in the team’s semi-final bout, and scored the goal to put her team ahead early, as well as assisting the game winner.
Perhaps the biggest change to the team was the leadership. Taking the mantle of last year’s captains, the torch was passed onto second-year Samantha Kell and fourth-year Michelle Wessa. Kell was groomed for the role during her first year, and her taking of the armband was only a surprise to those unaware of her natural leadership. Michelle Wessa was the pick that some could be more skeptical of, but it made sense. She is one of the only veterans on the team, and her work ethic on the field makes her a shining example for her young teammates. The two have done wonderfully this year, with Kell organizing the team emphatically, and Wessa being a beacon of leadership and spirit that the team could always look to for inspiration.
With the new and rejuvenated roster, Chris Laxton found a way to recapture the regular season title, finishing 7–2–3 with 24 points. The team pulled off a huge extra time win in the semis, but fell one goal short of recapturing the provincial title. However, they have the National Championships to look forward to, as their semi-final win earned them the PACWEST wildcard spot in Montreal.