How are athletes and coaches managing high expectations for the upcoming season?

Finding answers from the top-ranked men’s soccer, and cross country team

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Photo of soccer player Ali Zohar kicking a ball in a game.
Regardless of the rankings, both squads are looking to spring off the back of last year’s performances. PHOTO: Paul Yates / SFU Athletics

By: Simran Sarai, Sports Writer

The start of the fall season always brings excitement to campuses across the league, with teams preparing for long months of competition, all striving to be the best of the best. Three SFU sports teams have earned recognition from coaches across their leagues. Men’s soccer and the men’s and women’s cross country teams were each ranked first in their respective Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) Preseason Coaches Poll.

With high expectations set at the beginning of the season, The Peak reached out to athletes and coaches to learn about how the teams were managing their expectations, responsibilities, and workloads for the upcoming season.

Men’s Soccer

The men won nine of their 16 games during the 2021 season, and have only dropped one game this season to previous NCAA Division II champions, California State Los Angeles. We spoke with head coach Clint Schneider about his thoughts on the ranking and the season ahead. Schneider spoke on how he felt about the first-place ranking: “It really means absolutely nothing.

“The goal here is to win a national championship, and that’s it. Anything short of that isn’t good enough.”

Teammates and midfielders Ali Zohar and Conrad Cheng spoke about their expectations for the season ahead after a strong season last year by both players. Zohar played every game for SFU and earned Second Team All-Conference honours, while Cheng was named GNAC Newcomer of the Year and earned First Team All-Conference honours.

Speaking to The Peak, Zohar, who will be competing in his second season for SFU, laid out his plan for managing the high expectations that he, the team, and coaching staff have for the 2022 season. His key to success include “putting the work in on the field, having a good mindset, having a good work ethic on and off the field, [and] leading by example for everyone.”

With more responsibilities as a returning player, Zohar spoke about how he manages disappointment while also hoping to set examples for newer players in the 2022 season. “You just have to be mentally strong [ . . . ] Even if you do lose this game, you have to be ready to play the next one. Stay motivated no matter what, knowing that we’re working towards something bigger than just one game.

Cheng highlighted the difference in team atmosphere from last season to this season. “Last year we were really struggling, we never really clicked on the field, so we were just scrambling for wins [ . . . ] This year, there’s a massive mentality change. 

“Coming into this season, everyone is on the same wave-length. It’s super positive in the dressing room right now, everyone is super hungry. You can see it in practice, you can see it in games [ . . . ]  We’re so far ahead of where we were last year.”

Cheng credits the team-first attitude that has been prevalent already this season as one way the team’s expectations have changed from last season. “This year, it’s 100% team oriented. All that matters to everyone right now is just winning. I really don’t care about how we win games or how we get to the win, it’s just all about getting the win.”

Men’s and Women’s Cross Country

Both teams had a historic 2021 season, winning the GNAC Championships, and the women advancing all the way to the NCAA Championships. The Peak spoke to sophomores Kate Cameron and Charlie Dannatt on how they’re managing their expectations after a record-breaking season.

Cameron spoke about handling personal expectations after a breakout freshman season to the national championships with her teammates. Her biggest difference from last year to this year is not feeling intimidated to put herself at the front of races. “I have a bit more confidence in the first few races than I did last year. I put myself at the back, thinking that was my place as a freshman.” 

Conversely, Dannatt was measured in his excitement for the ranking. “We just need to prove that we are number one throughout the season and actually run up to what we should be running, and make nationals hopefully.”

In terms of managing expectations, Dannatt spoke about lessons learned from last season. “We got to the end of the season last year, a few of us were burnt out, and had probably raced too hard too early [ . . . ] This year we’re going to try and keep things in perspective and really make sure we’re hitting the end of the season the hardest.”

Dannatt also shared his thoughts on managing a bad result in a team sport that has a significant individual aspect. “Not everyday is going to be your day. You just have to look at the training that you’ve had and the consistency that you’ve had, and remind yourself that you are not just the value of the results that you had on that day. You’re the value of all the training you’ve put together up to that point so far, and all the hard work you’ve put in.”

Head coach Brit Townsend was flattered by the ranking, but realistic about the level of preparedness needed by the women’s team this season with a smaller, younger team. “I think the women’s team, it will be challenging to live up to the rankings, but I said that last year and we ended up at nationals.”

Speaking on the men’s cross country team, Townsend said, “I think we have more depth than ever. I think our team could actually be better than last year, even though we were very very good last year.”