Simon Fraser University are back at the NCAA Division 2 national tournament for the first time since 2018. The red-hot Red Leafs are looking to build on a fantastic season so far for Clint Schneider’s young side, hopefully fulfilling some of the potential of one of the best squads assembled up the mountain for many a year.
SFU secured their first Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) championship in five years at the weekend, booking with it a guaranteed postseason place, but they were made to work to finally get over the line after a strong start to the season was in danger of being undone with a tough road stretch to close out the regular season campaign.
The Red Leafs went on an eight-game unbeaten run to start their conference match-up, winning seven straight and outscoring their opponents 26 to 6. Needing just one win from their last three matches to be crowned champions, back to back defeats at Western Washington in Bellingham and Montana State Billings set up a nervy final match at home to Northwest Nazarene on Saturday.
With the game moved to Burnaby Lake from Terry Fox Field due to weather concerns, SFU headed into the match knowing that a win saw them crowned champions. Michael Hennessy’s 4th minute goal eased the nerves and the Red Leafs ended up running out comfortable 5-1 winners.
“Honestly, I’m a little bit relieved,” Schneider told AFTN immediately after his side’s impressive victory. “We didn’t make it easy for ourselves. When we see our schedule and you see the way that everything was rolling out, we knew the last four games were going to be extremely difficult. Thankfully we got the result at Northwest Nazarene that took away a little bit of the pressure, but the guys felt it. I felt it.
“Full credit to them. They embraced the opportunity, they embraced the circumstances. You talk about dealing with adversity, you talk about pressure, these guys dealt with it to this level. It was really impressive and I’m really proud of them.”
It was a fitting home goodbye for the six seniors that will bid farewell to the program at the end of this season: Callum Beattie, Matt Hobson, and the TSS Rovers quartet of Ali Zohar, Devin O’Hea, Justyn Sandhu, and Niko Papakyriakopolous. Captain O’Hea grabbed a goal and an assist, Zohar grabbed two assists, and Papakyriakopolous added another. They will be big shoes to fill, but that’s to discuss another day.
While Schneider would have preferred to have wrapped things up a lot earlier than they did, perhaps affording some of his star performers a bit of rest before the playoffs, the tough run-in and the do-or-die nature of their final regular season game can only benefit SFU, getting them into a full postseason mentality early.
“Yeah, it was almost like a playoff game,” Schneider admits. “But to be fair, we’ve been talking about that for the last couple of games. You’ve to got win. Win and you’re in and it’s over. Certainly as a coach you’re like, okay if we win this game, how are we going to prepare for the next game, and all those preparations kept going out the window because we weren’t able to get a result.
“Now we’ve got to go and put our best foot forward again. Credit to the guys. We approached it certainly as if this was the national tournament.”
After years of being national tournament regulars, it’s been a long five year wait for SFU to have another try to make some history as the first Canadian college to win a NCAA championship. With all the cross-border travel restrictions and lockdowns, Covid took a toll on SFU far more than other Canadian schools.
They’re now back with a bang.
There’s been some top quality SFU sides over the years in their NCAA era. Alan Koch’s teams at the start of the decade that made the run to the Final Four will always be the yardstick, but the 2018 squad that Schneider led to a 2018 GNAC championship was another standout squad, one which many feel underperformed after losing their first postseason match in double overtime.
The 2023 Red Leafs are right up there with the best we’ve seen in the program.
“The 2018 team was a really special group,” Schneider told us. “That group scored a ton of goals, didn’t concede a lot of goals, and that group ended up with four or five pros. That’s why we were so good. Can this group be at that level? Potentially. That group also had at that level guys that we knew as coaches that Marcello [Polisi] is this, Mamadi [Camara] is this, Coonor [Glennon] is this, Matteo [Polisi] is this. We knew these guys were always going to be at a high level.
“The young guys that you have, sometimes you just don’t know. With young players, and we start four, sometimes five, there’s growth. There’s time where they’re just not quite there to the level and at times they regress a little bit in a season and you’re encouraging, encouraging, encouraging or kicking ass to get them back to that standard. But then, two of our top three goalscorers in our group are Freshmen. Our starting right centre back, Freshman. Our starting right wingback today, Freshman. And a lot of guys that come on and play significant minutes are Freshmen.”
There are 11 rookies on Schneider’s SFU squad this season, not all have played significant minutes, but those that have like forwards Michael Hennessy and Koji Poon, two Whitecaps academy alumni, have led the way for the team alongside the graduating seniors.
Hennessy led the team and the Conference with 13 goals, earning him GNAC Freshman of the Year. Coming off a strong League1 BC season with the Whitecaps, Hennessy seamlessly carried the form and chemistry with Poon from that team into the college ranks. Both started every single match and Poon’s eight goals and two assists were pivotal to SFU’s success, especially in the early part of the season.
“Michael’s a special player, but take nothing away from Koji,” Schneider said. “Koji does a lot of work defensively that’s unnoticed. Pressing from the front, and we’re very good at pressing from the front. The guys have a very good understanding. Koji started off the season and had a ton of goals, well ahead of Michael, now Michael’s caught up and got ahead of him. Koji’s a big difference to why we are where we’re at.”
The ‘old’ head in SFU’s potent attack has been Devin O’Hea.
O’Hea has had a career year in his Senior season, scoring nine goals and adding nine assists for the Red Leafs. A performance that saw him deservedly named GNAC Player of the Year.
For a player who started his time at SFU as a wide receiver on the school’s other football team, his full transition to soccer superstar is now complete.
“Devin, thank God he gave up American football,” Schneider said with a laugh. “We’re getting the guy that a lot of people, when he was a youth player, saw that this is a guy that has the potential to be a pro. You can see it. He’s a man amongst boys. The only reason why Devin doesn’t have success every time he touches the ball is because Devin does something that he shouldn’t do, not because of other teams.
“He has ability in spades and the great thing about Devin is that he’s only been playing full time soccer for the last three years and one of those years he had a bad back. So this is his second year full time soccer for a long time and you can see it. What a year he’s having. He deserves every accolade he gets. Thank God he’s on our team and not the opposition, because I wouldn’t want to play against him! What a player, what a year from him.”
Talented, hungry, local lads that want to succeed. That the modus operandi for Schneider and SFU moving forward, and it’s already reaping its rewards.
“It’s one of the best groups we’ve ever had, definitely,” Schneider added. “Local, and that’s on purpose. We want to have the best local guys here. We want to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’re good enough, we want you to play. And big top credit to our young guys because without those guys elevating the level, and if it wasn’t consistent over the year, who knows.
“But this is where, back to the 2018 group, if the standard can be like the first half today [against Northwest Nazarene], absolutely. And that 2018 group, we didn’t win a game at the national tournament. These guys have an opportunity to do that. Every group is special in their own way, now it’s up to these guys to make history for themselves.”
They kick off their opportunity to do that on Thursday evening down in Los Angeles.
SFU head into the D2 national tournament as the number 7 seeds in Super Region 4. They take on the number 10 seeded Point Loma Nazarene Sea Lions in the first round (kick off 6pm) for a chance to face the number 2 seeded Cal State LA Golden Eagles in the second round on Saturday.
Point Loma finished their season with a 12-4-2 record and the sides have never met before. Cal State LA have a more daunting 16-1-2 record, but SFU (11-4-2 overall) have won three of the four previous meetings between the two teams and will fancy their chances of advancing.
Regular season stats are all well and good, but as we all know, it’s a whole different ball game come the postseason and SFU are heading south full of confidence.
“My expectation is to win every game we’re in, no matter who we play against,” Schneider mused. “Our guys, the belief in the group is that it does not matter what state they’re from, it doesn’t matter how many games they have won, the group believes they’re the best team on the pitch every time they play, no matter what. And I’ll be honest with you as a coach, when we play well, we are the best team on the pitch every day we play. When we don’t, then of course we can get ourselves in trouble.
“The group’s potential is through the roof. Now it’s up to them. These are the games we’ve set goals for, now it’s the fun stuff. As a head coach, I’ve never won a national tournament game. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to try again. I’ve been on some really good teams as an assistant coach and won games and made runs. I hope to use that experience to navigate the next step.”