You can just tell the energy is up, the guys are ready to show what we’ve been working towards for the past three weeks,” third-year fullback Mark Smith said before Friday’s practice. “We’re really looking forward to showing the home crowd what we’re capable of.”
The Panthers get that chance at 5:15 p.m. when they host the St. F.X. X-Men.
Lewis Page, entering his 18th seasons as head coach, can sense an increase in excitement and energy from his charges.
“There is certainly that desire to get ready and get started,” he said. “They've have enough of training camp now and they just want to get on the field and start playing for real.”
UPEI finished 2016 sixth in the 10-team Atlantic University Sport conference with a 6-5-1 record while St. FX (7-2-3) was third.
UPEI started the season 0-4 losing three games 2-0 and another 1-0 before getting a 0-0 tie. They finished the year by winning six of their final seven contests.
“We know it’s a short season, so the more points you can rack up at the start, the better for the team,” said midfielder Nacho Sanchez, a third-year business student from Cornwall. “Everybody is real excited to get the season going.”
While the Panthers have dealt with some aches and pains throughout training camp, Page said there wasn’t anything holding guys off the field to start the season.
The squad will play a similar style as past years, but Page sees the team being better when they have possession of the ball. Part of it has to do with a maturing squad and part of it has to do with the new additions.
“We’ve got a few more technicians this year than we maybe had the last couple of years,” Page said. “We’re a little more comfortable with the ball at our feet, and I think you’ll see an improvement in our game that way.”
The team has a number of key players, including fifth-year fullback Jeff Moore, midfielders Lucas Ross and Sam Smiley and keepers Brett Strba and Nathan Ford. Page wasn’t tipping his hand on who was starting on Friday.
One of the new addition is Neil Harte, a Saskatchewan native who will play forward or on the wing. Page said he is good in possession of the ball and can create goal-scoring chances with his left foot.
But the team’s greatest additions might be an added year of experience for second-year players like striker Mohammad (Mo) Jaber, who had five of the team’s 13 goals, and Cohen Reddick-Stevens, who is moving from midfield to the back line.
“It gives us another quality player on the pitch and good service from the back,” Page said, while noting it will be the first time since Cole MacMillan left the team in 2015 UPEI has had a left-footed fullback.
“The end of last season gave Mo a ton of confidence and he really wants to come in and show he can do that for a full season,” Page said. “We’re looking for them (both) to grow as players, for sure, and I think they’re ready to do that.”
Regardless of today’s result the Panthers won’t have long to think about the outcome. The team plays Sunday at 3:15 p.m. in Moncton.
“We don't worry about the weekend games until we come back together on a Tuesday,” Page said.
A look at this weekend’s UPEI Panthers varsity sports teams’ schedules:
2 p.m. – UPEI at Acadia.
3 p.m. – St. FX at UPEI.
5:15 p.m. – St. FX at UPEI.
1 p.m. – UPEI at Moncton.
3:15 p.m. – UPEI at Moncton.