Royals' route to nationals guaranteed

They know their future, but the Douglas College women’s Royals soccer team want to cinch their destiny.

The squad enters the 2018 PacWest League season with a big red circle on their calendar as hosts and participants at the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association’s championship hosts in November.

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All the stressing and hand-wringing that goes with battling for a berth can be cast aside – or at least converted into something more organic – as the Royals hone in on building a challenger for a national crown.

After last year’s PacWest league title and a fifth-place finish at the nationals, knowledge and experience will be major assets as the squad kicked off the regular season Saturday with a 2-0 victory over Langara at Coquitlam Town Centre Park.

“Our focus is to find a rhythm, find who plays well together, what formations we can throw out there and give players minutes,” head coach Chris Laxton said. “Most important, give players rest so we don’t need to put them through the grind of 12 games in seven weeks. We can hopefully give them time to rest and be ready in time for November.”

Knowing you’ll be playing Nov. 7 to 10 with the rest of Canada’s best teams eases some of the early details every club faces to launch a season. But it doesn’t inoculate them from doing all the hard work and checking off the necessary boxes when it comes to marking a successful year.

Laxton considers the off-season work, primarily recruiting and player retention, as big pluses.

Douglas’ main losses were key contributors – five-year veteran Michelle Wessa and third-year Jasdeep Gill, both anchors at midfield – but the leadership mantle remains with captain Samantha Kell, who topped the PacWest in scoring with eight goals in 11 games, forward Mikayla Hamilton and midfielder Andrea Perrotta.

A Coquitlam native, Perrotta was the league’s top scorer and Player of the Year in 2016 as a rookie and is expected to be a major contributor after missing all of 2017 due to injury.

The backline as a whole is intact and one of the reasons Laxton feels confident that they can convert on last year’s promise, which saw them capture the league crown in penalty kicks over archrival Capilano.

Returnees like Coquitlam’s Alyssa Lum and Port Moody’s Sadaf Ataullah Baresh as well as Burnaby’s Ashley Bristow, Surrey’s Sonali Dholliwar, are part of a deep defence that works in tandem with goalkeepers Alexa Gazzola, Nicole Scott and freshman Halle Bottrell, who played last year with North Coquitlam United, to keep the ball at bay.

“Our backline is strong and they’re just trying to click together in preseason. Hopefully we’ll see more from there. Our attacking group, with Mikaela and Andy the last two (league) MVPs, will add a spark going forward,” he said.

When it comes to new additions, the team stocked up at every position, including Burnaby midfielder Mikaela Montagano, Surrey forward Sofia Flores-Aguilera, Ladner centre back Hannah dela Cruz, and PoCo midfielder Emma Thomas.

“They’re going to make an impact in their first year, especially with the minutes we’re able to throw around knowing our end date and we know we’re going to play in November,” said Laxton of his eight additions.

Knowing the team has got plans in November doesn’t erase the pressure. It’s just more internally at this stage, fittingly, and will give them a concise blueprint to follow during the coming months.

“It’s going to be me putting my ego in check and making sure we’re doing the right things instead of chasing things we don’t necessarily need,” said Laxton of the ladder they need to climb. “It’s about finding a groove and ultimately winning three games in November, that’s what it ultimately comes down to.

“If we do everything right, hopefully things go in our favour and we get the bounces.”

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