The arrival of May 1st, the turning of another page in the calendar, and typically, the signal of the start of another season of local soccer, in earnest.
Sure, in most years, high-school soccer would have a week or two in the books, and competitive teams would be transitioning from a couple of months of indoor workouts to the fresh air and sunshine of the great outdoors.
As April showers give way to the month of May flowers, there is truly a feeling of soccer in the air.
In 2005, the buzz around Sudbury surrounded the Sudbury Canadians women's soccer team, competing for the second straight year in the United Soccer League. True, the team had won just once in 14 outings in their inaugural campaign, but head coach Frank Malvaso was certainly not about to abandon ship.
The long-time local soccer personality did, however, acknowledge the inherent challenges of trying to put together a team in the nickel city that could compete with squads that were based out of Ottawa and Montreal, New Jersey and Vermont.
"Our primary group is northern Ontario players," said Malvaso. "But ideally, what we would like to do, if we ever could do it, would be to actually get three to four national-level players to play here."
Certainly, the Canadians' program had demonstrated the ability to develop top level female soccer talent, with the likes of Megan Schutt and Katie Johnston moving successfully on to compete within the NCAA ranks. The depth of their roster, however, along with the need to insert younger girls who were simply not ready for the level of USL play, was problematic, to say the least.
Sudbury teenagers were learning on the fly.
"I think this year, they've got one year of experience and that's probably going to help us move forward now," said Malvaso, as his team prepared for year two. "We're not going to predict that we're going to win the league or anything - we still have the youngest team in the league - but the more experience they get, the better they will get, and we actually saw that last year."
The Canadians did show signs of improvement, tripling their victory total in year two, before struggling to a winless 0-12 campaign in 2006, and folding their USL entry prior to the start of the 2007 schedule.
Still, the youth program continued to produce elite soccer recruits, most notably Cloe Lacasse (Iowa Hawkeyes - currently playing in Portugal), Karolyne Blain (all-time leading scorer - Universite de Moncton), and sisters Natasia and Serena San Cartier, both of whom played in the NCAA.
In fact, during the preamble to the start of the 2005 Canadians' season came news that striker Thalia Playford had accepted a scholarship offer to join the Western Michigan Broncos in the fall. "I kind of always wanted to go to the States, and since Megan (Schutt) and Lauren (Podolski) went, I've talked with them a lot," stated the Lockerby Composite senior, at the time.
"“Everyone else who has gone away has done so well, but with it being my first year, there is a little less pressure - nobody really expects too much. I think my coach describes me as having quick feet and good offensive instincts around the goal."
A natural left-footer, Playford would go on to play four seasons in Kalamazoo, leading the Broncos in scoring in her freshman year with six goals. An academic all-MAC honouree as a sophomore, the local product would amass 14 goals and 31 points over the course of her time at Western Michigan.******************************************************************************
For as much as spring soccer headlines are nice, the truth is that when it comes to hockey, teams that are grabbing the spotlight in May typically signals a very successful post-season run for local squads.
That was certainly the case in 2006, as the Sudbury Junior Wolves trampolined from their first NOJHL title in decades, on to a very strong showing at the Dudley Hewitt Cup, advancing all the way to the championship encounter, before falling in overtime.
It was quite the turnaround for a crew that finished in last place the previous year, and battled tooth and nail to defeat the three-time defending champion North Bay Skyhawks in six games in the league final. "There hasn't been a lot of winning going on for this group of guys," said Sudbury head coach Darryl Moxam. "Bottom line is we matched their intensity."
"They're a tough team to beat."
In fact, the Junior Wolves had built up a 6-2 lead in the clinching game, courtesy of goals from Brian McGarry, Brendan Biedermann, Jamie Dallaire, Rob Bonhomme, Nick Heins and Jesse Graham, before the Skyhawks stormed back, falling just short in a 7-5 loss.
Just over a week later, the locals were continuing their magical run, overcoming a 4-2 deficit with but 13 minutes to play and battling their way into the Dudley Cup final with a 5-4 semi-final win over the Dryden Ice Dogs.
Biedermann and McGarry combined to work together in recording the final three goals, while goaltender Darren Rowlandson, who came on in relief of starter Paul Pidutti earlier in the week, continued his strong play of late.
"Darren is playing really well right now and the guys have a ton of confidence in him," said Moxam. "Brendan has scored some huge goals and even with Brian, having never played on this type of stage, there were some questions as to how much he might be able to elevate his game."
Ironically, there would be a local story-line to the heart-breaking conclusion to this memorable stretch, as Sudbury product Josh Slobodian, traded midway through the 2005-2006 season, scored the game-winning goal in overtime, lifting the Fort William North Stars to a 7-6 win over the Jr Wolves, earning the SJHL entry a berth in the Royal Bank Cup in Brampton.