HAMILTON, ON – As Jayashree Pathak reflects on the season so far and her career, there a lot of moments and memories. The fifth-year goalkeeper from Richmond Hill has seen a lot in her time with McMaster Marauders.
She’s experienced the transition to university. She’s experienced a memorable 2018 season when the Marauders made the trip to nationals under then-head coach Joe Valvasori. She and her teammates experienced the news of Valvasori being diagnosed with cancer and passing away in April 2019.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Pathak and her teammates were sidelined for a year while getting to know a new head coach in Miranda Wiley and several new players. Now, in her final season of university soccer – after five years of growth on and off the field – she is one of the key players for a McMaster team that has started off with five wins and one draw. A team, as Pathak pointed out, capable of reaching nationals once again.
With the transition from Valvasori to 2019 head coach Anthony Costa (Valvasori’s former assistant) to Wiley, many elements have changed. There are also core elements that have stayed the same.
“It was really just setting a winning mindset and a family mentality that we wanted to carry through from the past generations,” Pathak said. “Just bringing in a style of play that works with the talent that we do have and thus far, it’s been working and I feel like it’s been really great because I feel like we’ve really connected as a unit.”
The circumstances made it a challenge – having a number of first and second-year players as well as not being able to train together last season due to COVID-19 restrictions – but the team has pulled together over time. A “win as a family and do it together type of mindset,” Pathak called it.
That togetherness has been forged through the Marauders players spending a lot of time off the field as well as on. “We really do everything together,” Pathak noted. It includes team bonding activities including a team dinner during the preseason. “Really getting to know each other off the field has really helped us connect on the field,” she added.
Pathak feels that connection in knowing teammates, how they move off each other, connect passes and communicate with each other. The team has been “a very welcoming community” to all the players according to her. “We want to embrace everybody’s uniqueness as people and I feel that making people feel comfortable off the field, makes people feel more comfortable, you know, being 100 percent true to themselves as a player and as a teammate on the field,” she said.
That family environment was there when Pathak first started at McMaster. She credits that to Valvasori. The environment allowed her to feel comfortable to talk to teammates with her thoughts and have conversations. It helped in her transition into university soccer, especially with the help of her veteran teammates at the time. She found she easily clicked with her older players.
One of the teammates she learned from was former Marauders captain Stephanie Roberts. She learned from Roberts the lengths that determination could push someone through obstacles. In her final season at McMaster, Roberts battled through injuries (including getting surgery) to come back and lead the Marauders. Pathak saw the amount of work Roberts and her teammates put into the game aside from the training hours. She realized the importance of nutrition, sleep and mental health and how it helped on-the-field performance.
As Pathak grew into her university career, the team grew as well. The Marauders won the Ontario University Athletics bronze medal and reached the national semi-finals in 2018. Pathak called it a surreal experience. One where the team saw all that hard work and determination pay off. She and her teammates understood what it took to get to that point.
Valvasori had climbed the coaching ladder through hard work and determination to reach the heights of 2018. The St. Thomas More and Mohawk College alum went into coaching after his playing career was over. He spent 14 years coaching the Hamilton Sparta Rep teams, eventually becoming the club’s technical director. He earned numerous certifications to become an Ontario Soccer Learning Facilitator. He worked as an assistant coach for eight years on the McMaster men’s soccer team with his brother-in-law, head coach Dino Perri before becoming the McMaster women’s head coach in 2017. In his second season, he took the team to nationals with eyes on bigger goals ahead.
Valvasori was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 but continued to coach the team through that, as Pathak calls it, “magical season.” The following season, after he passed away, the Marauders wore JV patches on their jerseys with Valvasori and his legacy also on their minds and in their hearts. “I think the biggest impact he had was he did a lot to form the values of family into this group,” Pathak said. “That’s the big thing we’ve always wanted to carry over since my first year.”
She saw him as a “really, really genuine person.” She saw him fight through his battle with cancer, the effort and will it took. “To see how much they care about us,” she remembers. Valvasori would go between treatments, practices and games to continue his role as coach, despite the physical exhaustion. “That just speaks to the person and the kind of coach he was and the kind of mentor he was to all of us,” she said.
Valvasori’s influence and love for his family is well-noted in his obituary. “Joe’s greatest asset was his love for his family,” it stated. “He was always at the centre of family functions, regaling us with stories, making everyone laugh, and keeping our wine glasses filled. He loved the company of his brothers and sisters, and helped all of them through life’s adversities.”
The obituary described the special bond Valvasori shared with his family members – including his father John. In building that family environment with the team, Valvasori had his help. John was an assistant coach with Valvasori and stayed on as a coach the season after. He continues to help the team and stay in touch with the players. “Joe was a good person who lived for others with whom he willingly shared his time and talents,” the obituary read. Valvasori opened his doors as well, having the team over for team barbeques and events at the coaches’ houses, according to Pathak.
Valvasori also sought the helping hands of the Marauders soccer family, bringing in alumni to help with training and getting to know the players. “I think that was one of the biggest memories I had, reminding us that this program has so much history,” Pathak noted. “Seeing some of those alumni come back and wanting to help reminds me how long that legacy goes and how people – even if they’re graduated and on with their lives – still care about this program. I think that was a really cool experience.”
When Miranda Wiley took the head coaching job in late February 2020, she became a part of that McMaster family. Like Valvasori, her journey to becoming the head coach had been a long one with multiple stops along the way.
She describes herself as a focused, ambitious, team-first player and person. A competitive one as well who loved to do whatever she could to help the team win. From her time growing up in Collingwood to becoming one of the best players in Ashbury University soccer history to getting into teaching and coaching, that competitive spirit drove her.
Wiley soon realized that coaching and teaching shared many similarities. She realized the enjoyment of helping players succeed both on and off the field. “I think with coaching and teaching, it’s just that opportunity to guide someone and joining them in their journey of being the best they can be,” she noted.
As she moved from place to place in her teaching and coaching career – from being a Phys-ed teacher in South Korea to being an assistant coach at Conestoga College to coaching the Cambridge Youth soccer club (which she still coaches) – she learned the value of putting people first. She realized her role as a coach and how it extended beyond the games and practices. She understood the role she had in helping her players as they navigated life. Wiley talked with high school players about the transition to university. “When they see the value [of the relationship] and they look up to you as a role model, I want to keep you as part of their life, I think you can really see that that has come to fruition,” she said.
A week after she officially started on the job, the COVID lockdowns hit Canada and the in-person interactions came to a stop. As that happened, Wiley began to build the bond with the players and with the team itself. With no game plans to focus on, Wiley turned the conversations to building the team culture and identity and getting the know the players personally. They would talk about the players’ soccer careers, their field of study and what they wanted out of their careers, among other things. She continues to do so.
“She always calls and checks in with players and have conversations, see what’s going on in our lives,” Pathak said. “She creates a very open dialogue from the very beginning before she even met some of us.” For Pathak, that player-first approach helps for Wiley to understand the players, to recognize players’ potentials. “She recognizes that you’re going to have bad days and it’s not about pretending that didn’t happen and sometimes there’s things you carry onto the field from your personal life,” she said.
Pathak said she feels like she’s able to talk to her about things going on in her life. She noted it helps with players’ mental health. “It’s nice having a who understands that and helps us as players feel like we can talk about whatever we need to talk about and get things off our chest when we need to,” she added. Wiley sees when players are having difficulties and offers support, according to Pathak.
Wiley also carried her competitive spirit into the team. For her, it was about having a competitive environment. “It’s just your mentality coming into it,” she said. “We define competition as first against yourself. Can you be better than today than you were yesterday?”
“Oftentimes, people look at competition as being against something,” she continued. “But we say within the practice environment, competition is to build up your teammates and make them better as well.”
Part of the competitiveness is helping players grow by pushing them outside their comfort zone. Wiley sees those growth opportunities in many different forms. For players transitioning from high school to university, it can come from being in a new environment, filling in a role and the additional responsibilities that come with that. “I think when players are experiencing additional success, then that’s when you can recognize a player is growing but as well as just how they’re playing right, and their success on the field, based on their position, what they’re able to do and the impact they have on the game” she noted.
The veterans – including Pathak – have played an important role in helping Wiley and their new teammates bridge the gap from high school to university. They have talked with Wiley about the philosophies and culture of previous teams. They have helped their teammates understand what it’s like being a student-athlete, time management, the demands of practice and other aspects. “They step into those leadership roles but also bridge the legacy of the past teams with the new team,” Wiley said.
Pathak is a bridge between the new and the old teams. She’s felt the support from her Marauder women’s soccer family and her own family as well. Pathak credits her parents, who’ve supported her in everything she’s tried. She remembers first falling in love with the sport, as someone drawn into the “not normal” positions in sports from a young age. When many others were skiing, she was drawn into snowboarding. She soon fell in love with being a goalkeeper, the feeling of being in a net and hanging in the air mid-dive, catching a ball. “It feels like flying,” she said.
She continued to soar and learned to push herself to new heights and new things in sport and in life. She became a starter over her time at McMaster. She learned about who is she outside of being an athlete, especially during the past year. As an artist, she started her own website (called JustJaysh) where she sells her own paintings. That entrepreneurial side was inspired by her brother, with who she’s worked on a lot of projects with. “That mentality is like you can always be better and always do more,” she said. That mentality was instilled and supported by her parents and family.
When Valvasori and her grandfather passed away, she also learned the importance to be grateful for every opportunity in life. From her grandfather and mother, she gained life lessons. “My mom always just reminded me that who you are, beyond what you do on the field, is just so important,” she said. Pathak calls her late grandfather “a second dad” given the amount of time they spent together growing up.
Her grandfather used to tell her two things that stuck with her. “Patience is a virtue, virtue is grace; if you have both, you’ll have a good face,” he would tell her, underlining the value of being patient. “Another thing he’d always say is people will forget what you did but they’ll never forget how you made them feel,” she added. “Those two lessons have helped me remember how important is to be good to everyone…and remember that how you make people feel is really important.”
With her senior’s night coming up as well as the twilight of her McMaster career, Pathak reflected on how the people during her university experience – her family, her coaches, her teammates, her McMaster soccer family – have made her feel as well. They and the relationships formed continue to resonate. “You share such a unique experience being on a team,” she added. “I think that’s the one I’m going to miss the most out of the sport and out of school.”