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Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2018
Castrechino and company looking to post-season play at home
by Randy Pascal

The Laurentian Voyageurs men's soccer team are right where they want to be.

With just two regular season games remaining, both at home, coach Carlo Castrechino and the boys have put themselves in a great position to secure a top four finish in the very challenging OUA East Division, and with it, a chance to host a playoff game for the first time since 2009.

It's all come together very nicely for a squad which followed up a season in which they simply could not take points away from the top four with a fall that has included victories over Ryerson (1-0), Queen's (2-1) and perhaps most impressively, the University of Toronto Blues (2-1).

"I think that was the turning point in the season, when we beat Queen's," said Castrechino, looking back on the mid-September matchup that improved the L.U. record, at that time, to 4-3-0.

"We were down to ten men that game, and down 1-0, and we scored two goals short-handed. I could really see our team building from there. This past weekend was icing on the cake, beating Toronto."

In chatting with players and coaches alike, it becomes clear that two key factors have played in to the success that finds the Voyageurs boasting a record of 7-6-1, with encounters with both the UOIT Ridgebacks (6-5-3) and the Trent Excalibur (3-7-4) set for this Saturday and Sunday in Sudbury.

"The biggest difference is that the veterans really don't treat the younger guys any different," noted fourth year forward Dean Pizolinas, one of three players on the team with three or more goals to his credit (Liam Ezzard leads with four and Zef Kraja also has three).

"We're all friends. After every practice, there's at least ten of us going out to dinner together." The atmosphere has been striking, most notably to those who are calling Laurentian home for the first time in 2017.

"What kind of surprised me is how unified the team is," said freshman defensive midfielder Jacob Gramegna. "I've been playing on a (summer) team where chemistry hasn't been the best. Here, the chemistry is way better than I expected. This whole team is all together, throughout the season, no matter what. It's great."

Great could also be the word that Castrechino utilizes to describe the play of any one of his key newcomers. "The biggest revelation to us has been our depth," noted the long-time coach and former scoring sensation with the blue and gold.

"Jacob has been fantastic. We threw him to the wolves in the midfield, and he's just grown with every game." Safe to say it's been a rookie season to remember for the Mississauga native. "My first few games, I really didn't play at all," noted Gramegna.

"I think I had a total of seven minutes in my first three, but since then, I've played every minute of every game. The thing for me was just to keep working hard. I didn't really have any expectations, I wasn't too familiar with the team in terms of individual talent."

"As the season has gone along, I've gotten better as I've got used to the OUA talent that we have to play against." That improvement has been noticed pretty much right across the Laurentian lineup, from first year contributors to the seasoned post-secondary talent on hand.

"The confidence the coaches have had in me was a huge thing coming in," noted Pizolinas. "We've always had to fight for a spot, so them giving me the nod right away, letting me know I was one of the wingers and needed to step up this year, it's such great support."

"On the field, it translates right away." In fact, the offensive creativity that is present with this particular grouping of players gave way to a mid-season strange in strategy, a second key factor to the Voyageurs' ability to find a better fit against the OUA elite.

"We're keeping games close, and we've created more chances than we ever have," said Castrechino. "We changed to a 3-5-2 formation midway through the year and the confidence is riding high, for sure. All in all, our team has played really good soccer."

"The league has noticed," continued Castrechino. "I really don't think teams want to play us in the playoffs." If the coaching staff has spent considerable effort preaching the message to their crew, it's quite clear that it's being received.

"The coaches have really emphasized being able to create chance, but not only to create chances, but to finish those chances," stated Pizolinas. "I feel like I can do it every time I touch the ball."

"The key for me, coming in as a winger, is knowing my shot is good enough to go in," he added. "Every time I am about to shoot, the thought in my head is how am I going to celebrate, because I have the confidence to know I can put it in the back of the net."

"The first few games, we were struggling to create anything," suggested Gramegna, looking back on the move to a more aggressive team approach. "Now, we're flowing really well on the attack and taking the chances we've been getting."

And though much of this new mindset has come thanks to the tinkering of both lineup and philosophy in the land of the Voyageur, a steady, consistent, returning back-drop has also been key in allowing all of this to happen.

"Connor (Vande Weghe) has been Connor," said Castrechino with a smile, discussing his two time team MVP keeper, a local product and graduate of St Benedict Catholic Secondary School. "He's the best goalie in Ontario."

Bring it all together and you have a team which believes it can compete with the best teams in Ontario. To do so, in the post-season, in front of a frenzied home crowd would seem only too fitting.

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