By Thomas Becker
Last season left fans and players alike stunned and perplexed.
Hopes were dashed, as the UPEI Panthers failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2013. It wasn't the way it was supposed to go and the players vowed to come back stronger.
"It's only going to get better," said team captain Ignacio Sanchez following last year's season finale win over the Saint Mary's Huskies. "We all made a commitment to play at a higher level. We push each other every day, working toward next season and there's only room for growth with these guys."
Ten months later the echoes of last season still loom over the captain, who enters his final year with the program.
"Last year was disappointing for all of us, but it was the reality check we needed," he said. "Nothing in this league is given, it's earned. We still have that bitter taste in our mouth and this year we have a point to prove, not only to ourselves, but to the university and province we represent."
After posting a disappointing 2-7-3 record, head coach Lewis Page reflected on the season and from his perspective the performances on the field didn't accurately portray the quality of athletes on the roster.
The team's inability to take advantage in games where they were the better team stalled their playoff aspirations and made for a grueling year. The back-to-back draws at Memorial to open the season is a prime example of what could've been and ultimately set the tone of things to come. But this year, they're looking to put the pressure on the opposition and finish them off.
"The goal is to put the opposition to the sword a bit more," Page said. "When we're on top of teams, we have to kill them off and win those games."
And if history is any indication, Page's teams have proven they can do exactly that.
After missing out on the playoffs in 2010, the Panthers licked their wounds and made it to the AUS Finals the next year. And following 2013's misstep, UPEI bounced back in a big way in 2014 to capture bronze at nationals.
What this program has shown over the years is it doesn't lack pride and the current corps of Panthers are looking to write their own chapter of redemption and accomplish something special themselves.
In an effort to do that, their captain and fellow fifth-year veterans Jake Deighan, Brett Strba, Lucas Ross, Sam Smiley and Mon San Aung led by example and came into training camp more fit and with a chip on their shoulder.
"While we're gutted with how last season ended, it allows us to show our character and what we're made of," Deighan said. "Nobody is going to expect big things from us in the league except ourselves. We're hungry to prove we belong again and it's shown in our training so far."
Deighan, along with Aung return as the lead defenders on the team and will be counted on to guide an inexperienced, but capable group including veteran Josh MacKillop and rookies Emmett Lyons and Colin Curran. They'll look to return to form after allowing 21 goals, fourth most in the league. The centre back said it's all about the willingness to do the little things—running when you don't want to run, winning that header you don't want to go up for and disciplined one-v-one defending—that'll ultimately make the difference on the back end.
"Defending is a mentality and UPEI has always prided itself on tenacious defending," Deighan said. "The little things that are often overlooked add up and can make the difference between winning and losing."
To address the offensive woes, the Panthers added highly touted prospect, Nathan Chow, from Campbell River, BC. The 18-year-old forward is a skilled goal-scorer, who'll complement striker Mohammad Jaber and forwards Cohen Reddick-Stevens and Smiley.
Personnel aside, Page also reassessed the playbook and acknowledged they need to do a better job in the attacking third after scoring just 10 goals in 12 games. This year, the Panthers look to attack with more two and three player combinations, forcing the defenders to spread out and open up passing lanes for the speedy forwards.
"I think we'll have more chances to score this year and when they come, we've got to be more ruthless," Page said.
The path to redemption is rarely an easy one to follow, but with a renewed sense of energy and commitment, the Panthers are ready turn the page and chase that dream once again.
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