By Dan Plouffe
The Ottawa TFC under-17 girls made history on Oct. 14 when they triumphed at Canada Soccer’s Toyota National Championships on the field at UPEI, but the region’s first Canadian crown at the top youth level was a title won in the hotel room just as much as on the pitch.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a group come together this much as a team,” says head coach Pavel Cancura. “You hear that stuff in movies, but this group has been like that.”
It didn’t exactly start out that way. The eventual champions were initially a bit of a mish-mash of fractured squads, hit by several player departures before the season began.
Alongside assistants Dwayne Bonadie and Pat Boyle, and Ottawa TFC girls’ academy head Raz El-Asmar, Cancura came in to lead a group of 28 players from multiple age categories.
“We were a new team. We had a lot of bonding to do,” reflects Lauren Curran, a team captain. “It’s amazing that we come from three separate teams – we’re in Grade 12, 11 and 10 – and we still manage to be like family, like sisters. It’s awesome.”
What they did share in common was “they’re a very heavily homegrown team” made up of players who’d been with the club since at least age 9 if not earlier, notes Cancura, who took extra pride in winning since “it’s not just a ‘dream team’ assembly of players from all over.”
And though they were different ages, each player was driven to play at the highest level, he adds. Goal scoring was spread out amongst many, as were minutes played.
“Any one of them could impact the game at any moment. Now, that sounds like something any coach would say, but to yell you the truth, usually teams rely on 4, 5 or 6 players,” highlights Cancura, also the club general manager and decade-long leader of the Cumberland club that became OTFC prior to this season. “Even our bench had weapons on it. You could pull players into the game and it would make us better. There were contributions from everyone.”
The team had a very unconventional – though ultimately effective – competition setup. Their request to join the provincial youth high-performance circuit’s U17 division was denied by the Ontario Player Development League before the year began (they will be allowed to enter that level next season, the club has learned). So the group elected to bypass the regional youth league and instead fielded a pair of entries in the Ottawa-Carleton Soccer League’s adult women’s premier and competitive-1 divisions.
Though shared amongst a team of 28, the group had close to 50 matches under their belt from league and tournament play come the end of summer, which prepared them well for the grind of 5 games in 6 days at the Oct. 9-14 nationals in Charlottetown.
Road to gold paved with nail-biters
OTFC’s path to nationals began with a narrow escape from Ontario Cup group play. A hard-fought 0-0 tie with West Ottawa on July 14 at Wesley Clover Park got them through to the knockout stage. OTFC later won both their Aug. 25 semi-final and Sept. 8 final over North Mississauga and Vaughan by 1-0 margins on the road.
“That journey kind of helped us,” signals Cancura. “At nationals, once we went up 1-0, I was confident. We’ve sat through three key games and held zeroes. It wasn’t desperate last-ditch defending. This team has just learned to be solid.”
Defence wins championships is a football adage that most certainly rang true for the OTFC champs. After returning from a midseason ankle injury, goalkeeper Paige Robert didn’t concede a goal during her Ontario Cup appearances, and allowed only one through pool play at nationals, and another in added time in the final game.
“(The defenders) just worked so hard to not allow the ball to even get near me,” details Robert, who decided at age 8 that she always wanted to play goalkeeper when her team loved her for making her first-ever save by getting hit in the face.
“It’s really motivating for me when they’re working so hard,” she adds. “So if the ball ever gets to me, I just have to do the same thing to help them.”
“We have a saying: ‘Our goal is to stop yours,’” echoes centre-back Curran. “We stuck by it. It was pretty motivational.”
A team bond to the max
That catchphrase was the product of one of many team-bonding activities the squad undertook. While at their hotel for the Ontario Cup, each unit (strikers, midfielders and backs/keepers) had to come up with a slogan, alongside a cheer and dance.
“We started calling it OTFC has Talent,” laughs Cancura, who’d change up the mini-teams for other challenges so everyone would work with different teammates. “The coaches would vote and give points. It was a meaningless competition, but a lot of fun.”
While at UPEI for nationals, the daily routine included a team walk every morning and stretching.
“It was definitely not a coincidence that the group grew tight together and was resilient when faced with adversity. Those were not accidents. We worked at it,” Cancura adds. “But by the end of the year, it was goosebumps, man.”
The coaching staff would check in with each player daily at nationals, to see if they were sore, if they’d slept well, ate well and were properly hydrated, and “while we were doing that, in the back, the leaders would pull together and would be playing a game as a whole group,” Cancura explains. “Slowly we’d walk over and they’d be like, ‘Coaches, come play!’ We’d had all these little activities prepared, but we didn’t need them. I told them, ‘This is great – you’re doing it yourselves. And that’s more powerful.’
Another striking moment for Cancura was when the team’s second goalkeeper Melina Cane was barred from playing the second half of a game at nationals as planned due to an equipment glitch.
“She was wearing the wrong colour shorts or something and they said she couldn’t go in,” recounts the Czech-born, Gloucester-raised coach. “This kid could have been pretty ticked off, but she doesn’t skip a beat. Within about 5 seconds, she processes it and turns the page. She says, ‘You’ve got this! You’ve got to concentrate,’ and starts to encourage the first keeper.
“It was pretty incredible. There aren’t many adults who would show that kind of maturity.”
The power of the printed word
OTFC players say there was another key ingredient to their championship recipe that went beyond dribbling, passing and shooting. Before many games, Cancura would give each player a hand-written note with some simple tips and a personalized message.
“It was really special. No coach has ever done that for any of us before,” Robert underlines. “It was like, wow. He really watches us. He motivates us. It was just really amazing how much he cared.”
The note would contain a message like: “To Paige. Our goalkeeper,” Robert recounts, “‘Be loud, be confident, be resilient. You are a quiet leader on this team. Communicate with everyone. Do your job, enjoy the game, and have fun out there.’
“And he’d just say, ‘I believe in you.’ And it just really touched me because it was like, ‘If he believes in me, then I can too.’”
That was Cancura’s primary goal in writing the letters (which took him about an hour to plan and write out for each player) – to let them know what to focus on and to appreciate the importance of each game.
“And the other side was psychological,” Cancura outlines. “That voice in your head, sometimes it’s negative or has certain pre-conditioned things that it tells you, but ultimately, the goal was to help them mentally prepare, so that they know, ‘This is how you should be speaking to yourself too.’
“Really, there’s a lot more to it than what happens at the park.”
The group did spend plenty of time practicing at the pitch too – from 4-5:30 p.m. every weekday for training with the club’s after-school academy.
“Friendship-wise, I’ve never been on a team as close as this one,” indicates Robert, a Grade 10 student at St. Peter Catholic High School. “We don’t fight, which is surprising – we’re together all the time. A bunch of us go to school together and we see each other all day long every day. But we’re all really close.”
The bond certainly extends to their coach too, adds Curran, in Grade 12 at St. Peter.
“Coach Pavel, he’s one of a kind. He’s the best coach we’ve ever had. I’ve never met anyone like him. He pushes us, and he cares so much for us,” highlights Curran, who was brought to tears by the note Cancura wrote her before the final. “Everyone improved since he took on our team. We can’t thank him enough for everything he’s done for us.”
‘Family’ celebrates historic title on Thanksgiving
After beating PEI FC 3-0, Halifax County 4-0, Moncton 6-0 and tying St. John’s 1-1 on consecutive days to reach the national final, Flavie Dube scored what proved to be the winning goal with her team-leading fourth of the tournament as OTFC downed Lakeshore 2-1 on Oct. 14.
Hugging everyone after the Thanksgiving Day triumph was all the more special because “this is our family and we did this together,” Robert recalls. “We worked so hard for it, and I felt like we deserved it.”
“That was so, so fun,” Cancura smiles as he remembers the final whistle. “When I first went over, what hit me is they were almost all crying. It kind of hit me too. I mean, it was just this sustained 7-day period of concentration, so all at once, it was relief, and of course joy, but it was so full of emotion.”
The victory earned the new local club a place in the Ottawa soccer record books, becoming the first from Eastern Ontario to win a U17 national championship (on the male or female side). The OTFC history-makers were welcomed by Mayor Jim Watson for a celebratory breakfast on Oct. 23.
“I think it’s great for our community and the younger girls at this club to see that we were able to accomplish this when no one has done it before us,” reflects Curran. “Now they can say, ‘Oh, we can do that too.’
“I guess we’ve started a legacy.”