By Thomas Becker
How does this sound – UPEI Panthers, 2018 Atlantic University Sport (AUS) Champions? Has a good ring to it, doesn't it?
Equipped with a wealth of youthful energy and veteran savvy, the Panthers are a team built for success and find themselves in a good position to contend for a title.
"That's definitely the goal this year. That's where the players want to be," said head coach Lewis Page. "You get there with experience. These guys have had a couple playoff runs, a couple tight seasons trying to make the playoffs and now they're ready to cross the line and make that next step."
The Panthers have consistently made the postseason – appearing in four straight – but only went as far as the semifinals just twice in 2014 and 2015. However, this year feels different. And a lot of it has to do with the team Page is fielding each weekend.
"Our depth is really important this year," said fourth-year striker and all-star Sam Smiley. "We have a lot of different looks at every position, and no matter who's playing, we're going to be dangerous."
Page knows a thing or two about championships, having coached the Panthers to a title in 2002 and admits there's something special brewing here.
"We're fun to watch," he said. "We'll work our butts off defending and we'll be hard to breakdown and beat, but this year we've also improved our attack."
It's that type of confidence that has trickled down to his team, including captain Ignacio Sanchez, who assumed the role after Jeff Moore's departure.
"The biggest thing about this team is the belief in our abilities," Sanchez said. "We're ambitious this year, knowing we have the ability to challenge for a banner. The group of guys have been working really hard, taking it game by game to achieve that goal."
The Panthers are experienced down the spine of the formation. Smiley and third-year striker Mohammad Jaber are the attacking front, Sanchez and Lucas Ross control the middle, while centre backs Jake Deighan and Cohen Reddick-Stevens (who made the move to defence) man the backline, with Brett Strba's reliable hands in goal. That's as tough a lineup as you'll see in the league.
"I think this team has a great opportunity to be a contender," Sanchez added. "Defensively, our record speaks for itself. Not having conceded a goal yet this season is a statement. And I think offensively we've found different approaches to create good chances that have given us the edge and will keep the opposition guessing."
And supporting this core on the field are talented young pieces like second-year winger Neil Harte and rookies Chris Sear, Duncan Murray and Donovan Wyand.
"It's a great blend young and old," Page said.
In the preseason, the Panthers sent ripples across the league, showing their competition that they're more than just a defensively sound team. Not only did they shutout every opponent, but they also put a dent on the scoreboard with 15 goals in just four games. To put that in perspective, last season they scored a total of 14 goals.
"I think our team has really come together and figured out a system that works with the players we have," Smiley said. "We have a creative group of players and with everyone on the same page, it's creating a lot of opportunities to attack."
There's a lot to like about this year's team and with good reason, but only time will tell if it's all hype or foreshadowing something special.
*Tickets are on sale now. Home opener is Friday, Sept. 14 at 7:15 p.m.