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LANGLEY, B.C. - For the first time since 2009, Trinity Western’s men’s soccer team is back in the U SPORTS Championship. Coming off their second straight appearance in the Canada West final, the Spartans return to the national stage as a legitimate contender and a program on the rise.

Since Mike Shearon took over as the Spartans head coach in 2016, the men’s soccer program – one that has a history that includes four U SPORTS medals (silver in 2006 and 2008 and bronze in 2005 and 2009) – has been on an upwards trajectory aimed at returning to the upper echelon of Canadian university soccer. In his first year at the helm, Shearon led the Spartans to a Canada West bronze medal. In his second year, TWU captured a conference silver medal. And this year, his third as the Spartans bench boss, TWU earned a ticket back to the U SPORTS Championship. Now, the team has eyes on continuing to ride the three-year wave of momentum that has them in a position to compete for a national title for the first time in a decade.

If there’s one thing this year’s group has proven over the course of the 2018 season, it’s that, above all individual performances, this is a team first and foremost. Perhaps the most indicative signal of the team’s “team-first” approach was the announcement of the Canada West all-star teams. While TWU was a U SPORTS Top 10 team throughout much of the season and finished second only to UBC in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division, the Spartans garnered just one conference all-star. Fifth-year midfielder Joel Waterman earned Canada West First Team All-Star honours and that was it. In reality, their balanced attack – one that saw TWU finish second in Canada West in goal-scoring (2.27 goals/game) with 11 different players scoring at least one goal – was likely TWU’s undoing when it comes to all-star nods, but at the same time, it was a major reason for the Spartans success.

Posting an 8-3-4 record, which included two regular season losses to highly-ranked UBC and a season-ending loss to Thompson Rivers in a meaningless contest, the Spartans were every bit as good as any team in the conference this side of the Thunderbirds. And while TWU ended up going 0-3 against UBC this year, including a 2-0 loss in the championship bout this past weekend, if the last hour of Sunday’s final was any indication, these Spartans can play with anyone.

Up front, Domenic Poletto (7G, 2A) and Cody Fransen (6G) have been TWU’s leading offensive triggermen. Add to that a sneaky good seven-goal regular season from midfielder Jacob Low and the Spartans proved to have a three-headed attacking monster that regularly caused their opposition fits. Add to that Leighton Johnson, who has been a utility man this year, filling in wherever injuries or suspensions have required, and TWU’s offence is plenty deep. While Johnson, who spent a few games at centre back out of necessity, had just two goals this season, his six-goal and six-assist season in 2017 shouldn’t be forgotten.

Patrolling the middle of the field is Waterman. The fifth-year captain has been a critical piece in TWU’s success and his mastery in the midfield makes him a central figure in everything the Spartans do.

With Shearon rolling out a variety of formations throughout the 2018 season, the likes of the ever-speedy and ever-dangerous Aidan Moore along with Matthew Roxburgh, Gordon Grice, Vito Poletto and the aforementioned Low have been the Spartans moving parts in a complex puzzle. All will likely see time on the pitch, either starting or off the bench, in this weekend’s tournament.

Playing on the backline or in a defensive midfield role, Caleb Johnson, who missed much of the season due to injury, is an impact player no matter where he fits into Shearon’s lineup. With a defensive unit that also includes veteran leader Vaggeli Boucas, fellow fifth-year Josh Hardy, first-year Noah Kroeker, fourth-year Bryce Prochnau and the energetic Austin Kasian, the Spartans are in fine form defensively heading into this weekend’s championship.

In net, second-year Sebastian Colyn is a solidifying backbone for the Spartans. Colyn earned all eight regular season wins for TWU, which put him third in CW, while posting a 1.47 goals-against average (5th in CW). Colyn showed his penalty-stopping pedigree in the Canada West quarter-finals. With the Spartans on the verge of victory in penalty kicks against Calgary, Colyn came up with a diving stop to secure the win and send the Spartans to the Canada West Final Four.

Coming in as the eighth seed in the tournament and playing perennial contender and OUA champion York in the quarter-finals puts the underdog stamp squarely on the Spartans. Yet, with a team-focused mentality enveloping this program, TWU could well be one to watch as the nation’s best descend on UBC this weekend.