By Marco Sasso
Last season, the Ryerson women’s soccer team’s place in the standings wasn’t a true testament to their ability.
After an unbeaten opening weekend, Rams star forward Alex Rodkin went down with a season-ending injury, just ten minutes into the third game of the year.
From there, the Rams’ lack of offensive depth led the team to be shut-out in their next three matches, spurring a nine-game winless streak that put the Rams out of reach from a playoff spot near the halfway mark of the season.
The team finished the season third in the OUA (Ontario University Athletics) in shot attempts, but near the bottom of the conference standings with a 3-6-7 record.
In what was an experimental first year for then-interim head coach Natalie Bukovec—who was promoted as head coach in December of 2018—five new freshmen forwards have been added to the 2019-2020 squad this off-season to ensure the team has enough diversity in their offence to make a legitimate post-season push.
“Playoffs are obviously the goal we want to achieve,” said Bukovec. “Last year we established our playing style and who we are as a program and what we like to do. Unfortunately, we couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net. That’s the reality. Having said that, it’s been a nice transition from last year to this year, and we continue to see the progress with that.”
Headlining this year’s recruiting class—that includes nine players and an attack-heavy group—is Jade Vyfhuis, a co-captain of the under-20 women’s Guyanese national team. The veterans on the roster have taken notice of the skills the new players and are quite impressed with this year’s group of young talent.
“Nat did a really good job of getting good personalities,” said third-year winger Katie Joyce. “They’re easy to work with, kind people, good attitudes, and they want to win—first and foremost. I think that’s something that stands out—that we didn’t necessarily always have a full solid group of people that were committed. I definitely think we have that now.”
Joyce, a player who has seen the darkest moments of the Ryerson women’s soccer program—which included the sudden departure of attacking phenom Victoria Watson to the Georgia Gwinnett Grizzlies of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics—is prepared for the team to exceed expectations across the OUA.
“In the past the program had a reputation of just trying to get to the playoffs, just trying to scrape by, and I think we want to make this a team to beat,” said Joyce. “We want to be here to show that we can compete with the top teams.”
After missing a bulk of last season, Rodkin will be returning to the Rams lineup to boost the Rams’ new and improved offence. Leading the team in scoring with seven goals back in her freshman year, Rodkin is now entering her final season at Ryerson and is expected to be a valuable mentor to help accelerate the transition to OUA competition for some of the young forwards on the roster.
The Rams will be hoping that Rodkin can stay healthy and recapture the form she once displayed during a one-goal, five-shot effort in what was Ryerson’s best performance last season that lead to a 1-0 win in their home opener against the University of Ontario Institute of Technology Ridgebacks.
Although Ryerson has found an early solution to their attacking woes, the backline leaves much to be desired. In a 2-1 preseason loss against the Guelph Gryphons on Aug. 25, the Rams defence was a step behind the speedy Gryphon attackers, exposing what Bukovec says is her team’s biggest weakness: defending against direct, kick and run offences.
The team’s biggest strength, however, is the strong leadership core. Led by co-captains Elisa Lapadula and Anastasia Grekos, with junior BreAnah Webster and sophomore Samantha Naus helping to provide additional support to a young Ryerson squad looking to grow on and off the field.
“They represent the entire program,” said Bukovec. “Each player has somebody that they can relate to and can go to essentially if they need support.”
Off the field, the Rams will continue to work with Beth McCharles, a sports psychologist and mental performance coach that Bukovec says is a “huge” resource for the team in overcoming the pressures of performing on the road, where the team was winless with a 0-3-4 record.
“When we talk about a training session, it can be on the field, it can be fitness related, but it could also be mental performance,” said Bukovec. “Learning how to deal with your emotions, and how to handle one another and that competitive nature to building a culture of excellence.”
The Rams’ new mentality will be put to the test immediately as they open the 2019 season on the road against the Queen’s Gaels, a team that made the OUA Final Four last season. Ryerson’s home opener is also set for Sept. 7th at Downsview Park.