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By Jesse McLean

Anthony Volpe and Michelle Smiciklas weren’t supposed to see a lot of minutes this year; let alone start a game. Now after getting their break, they are the face and the backbone of an athletics program on the rise.

Since grade 11, Michelle Smiciklas has aimed for a spot in Ryerson’s net. Now the first-year business management student backed the women’s soccer team into their first play-off appearance.

“She has been a key member of the team. In several games, she’s made the important saves that kept us alive,” said head coach Peyvand Mossavat.

As the team’s only goalie, Smiciklas has played all 16 regular season games, tallying a total of five wins and 102 stops. But she was never intended to be the Rams’ backbone.

While still minding the net for her native Oakville’s soccer club, Smiciklas began talks with Ryerson about a future position. She was to be one of two recruited keepers, and Mossavat expected her to fill the role of the team’s back-up goalie.

But when the other keeper prospect dislocated her elbow three months before training camp began, Smiciklas moved permanently into the starting line-up.

“She has come so far in terms of not only fulfilling the role of number one keeper, but playing some great games for us,” Mossavat said. “She has played above and beyond her technical ability.” “She came into the season as a three, but she played consistently as a seven or eight,” he said.

The transition wasn’t easy. The early season saw a Smiciklas who was young, inexperienced and intimidated.

“It was really stressful for me in the first couple of weeks. I wasn’t very talkative, and I wasn’t confident in myself,” she said. “I felt that I didn’t know the team well enough.”

As the season progressed, she gained her teammates’ confidence — in turn, building her own. She remembers an early October 1-1 tie against the fourth-place Laurentian Voyageurs as a major turning-point.

“I made a lot of key plays. Even though we only had about three shots on their net, they kept on pounding on me, and I kept on making the saves.

“I find that sometimes, the keeper decides on how the game goes,” Smiciklas said.

And, it’s the make-or-break aspect of being a goalie that forces her to be constantly improving. There’s danger in becoming too comfortable in net.

“There have been a lot of compliments, and sometimes I do let it go to my head and I get a little cocky. But I try to keep my head on the ground and taking those compliments and saying that I can improve, and next time I’ll do even better.”

Smiciklas’ story is almost paralleled on Ryerson’s men’s team. After a shoulder injury in an exhibition match claiming their starting keeper, the Rams were forced to turn to rookie Anthony Volpe.

“You never hope for anyone to get hurt, but it worked to my advantage. The team got to see the real me,” Volpe said, who is all-too familiar with injuries.

Last year, he broke his ankle during a high school football game. He was sidelined for six months.

“Any scholarship opportunities I had for soccer went away. I was worried about playing again and getting back to 100 per cent,” he said.

But he recovered, and led the Rams with three wins and a shut-out this season.

“Sometimes, someone like (Volpe) comes along and makes the whole team better,” said head coach Tony La Ferrara.

“You can’t rely on the goal keepers to win the game. But, he has the trust of the players in front of him, and they all really value his confidence,” said La Ferrara, who explains Volpe’s reliability as one of the key reasons for the team’s success.

The Rams’ season ended on Oct. 21 with a tie, dropping them point behind Nipissing and barely missing the playoffs.

“When you look back over the season, you see all those moments you could have tied or won,” said Volpe.

Yet the year’s been a learning experience. Beyond making friends and getting advice from the team’s veterans, Volpe has realized the importance of the sport in his life.

“I’d definitely like to pursue soccer and see where it takes me,” he said.

Smiciklas is unsure where she’ll be after three more years with the Rams.

“Right now, I don’t think I’m good enough to be in the professional league,” she said. “But if I have time, I’ll definitely continue to play women’s soccer competitively.”

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