A cautious optimism

As the sun disappeared behind Mount McIntyre on Thursday night, Yukon Selects’ coach Joe Zuccarini switched his baseball cap for a woolly toque.

As the sun disappeared behind Mount McIntyre on Thursday night, Yukon Selects’ coach Joe Zuccarini switched his baseball cap for a woolly toque.

He stood at the sidelines of the pitch at FH Collins, watching intently and occasionally scribbling notes.

The players on the field didn’t seem to notice the cold, however.

They were busy getting in a last game before heading to Surrey, BC, on Tuesday for the men’s national soccer championship, the Challenge Cup.

The Selects have played well this season, finishing second in both the Alaska State Championships and at a tournament in Edmonton in August.

Zuccarini said the heat in Alberta was a factor in that final-game loss to an Edmonton premier league team.

“When you’re used to practicing in near-zero degrees every night, then you go over to 30 degrees, it’s tough,” he said.

After finishing eighth out of 12 at last year’s nationals, the Selects will attempt to hold that spot with a very different team.

“We’re a lot younger than we were last year, a lot less experience,” said Zuccarini. “We have four or five guys around 30, but the majority of the players are 17 to 22, which is young for a men’s team.”

In the past week, the team lost five key players for various reasons — strikers Amon and Boris Hoefs had school commitments, Paul Fraughton is injured, and Nick Locke and Eli Clements can’t make the trip either.

“The players that we lost were strong offensively,” said midfielder Peter Mather. “We’ve become a defensive team — it’s a bit of an adjustment.”

Mather added that the starting 11 are pretty solid, and the pool the Selects are in works to its advantage.

Nova Scotia is the team’s first challenge, a team the Selects managed to tie last year. (The only win last year came against New Brunswick, not in its pool this year.)

Second is Alberta, probably the toughest team it will face, and then PEI.

“Realistically, when we started, we wanted to hang on to our 8th position. But we’re a very young team and it will be very tough,” said Zuccarini.

“We have to play as a team from the goaltender up, if we don’t we’re going to be in trouble.”

Zuccarini is looking to the veterans on the team to step up and lead.

“We have players like Victor Lavenderos, who have been around a long time, and played at nationals for us, and also for Quebec when he lived in Montreal.”

“He’s a very cagey veteran — he brings a lot of experience to the team and it’s great to have him,” said the coach.

“Jake (Hanson) and Peter (Mather) have a lot of experience as well. We’re looking to these guys to be the leaders on the field, to keep the younger players in check and make sure they do their job.”

Lavenderos has a bit more optimism than his teammates.

“I hope to finish fourth, for sure, or win it. You never know, to win nationals you need a little luck,” he said with a grin.

At halftime on Thursday, the veteran sweeper encouraged his teammates to keep up the chatter on the field.

“This year, we are more skillful, more than last year,” he said after the game. “We need to be a very close team, lots of communication, focus. We don’t need the star players, we need skillful players — and we have that.”

The women’s Selects will travel to Surrey as well, to compete for the women’s national championship, the Jubilee Trophy.

In its first year as a team, the women’s Selects have already won the Alaska State Championship, and have spent the summer playing in the Whitehorse men’s league.

“The women’s team did really well this summer, hopefully they can gel after two months of not playing together.” said Mather, who coached the team for the first half of the season.

Many of the women’s players are off at university, but will reconnect with the team in Surrey. “It’s hard that they went away and we haven’t had any games,” said player Haley Stallabrass.

“We’ll have a practice when we get down there, and we’ll have to re-adjust in the first 10 minutes or so. I think that we’re really prepared for nationals, and everyone’s really stoked about it.”

Veteran player Sarah Hanson sums up the team’s chances in Surrey.

“We’ve got PEI first, then we play Nova Scotia and then Newfoundland,” she said. “We’re very thankful we have the matchups that we do — if there’s three places we could be competitive against, those are the ones.”

Both the Challenge Cup and the Jubilee run from October 5-10.