“It’s going to be a learning curve:” Victoria Vikes men’s soccer enters new era with Larry Stefanek

Walking across the grass at Centennial Stadium isn’t a new experience for Larry Stefanek. Still, in 2022, the University of Victoria’s home stadium looks slightly different to him than it did when he left in 1992. 

It’s not the small renovations to the 1966-built grandstands but rather his point of view and the absence of a familiar presence. Stefanek, a former Victoria Vikes student-athlete, took over the program as head coach in 2022 after former Canadian 1986 World Cup player Bruce Wilson retired after 34 years in the role. 

The former FISU Team Canada athlete, who played under Wilson during his time at UVic, comes back to Centennial Stadium after coaching with the VIU Mariners in the CCAA’s PACWEST conference, where he spent the last four seasons. 

“It’s exciting for me because I played her as a player many years ago, and I did my degree there, so it’s familiar that way,” Stefanek told 49 Sports. ‘I played for Bruce, so it’s exciting times and just trying to build on a lot of the good things he did and the past coaches to forge a way forward.”

At VIU, Stefanek led the Mariners to PacWest silver medals in 2019 and 2021, a CCAA silver medal in 2019, and earned PacWest Coach of the Year honours. As he transitions to U SPORTS, he takes on a new challenge, testing his coaching abilities at the next level. 

“I’ve coached at the university level before, but not U SPORTS, so of course there are similarities, but it’s such a higher level,” he said. “The big difference is being able to train every day on the pitch or in the gym. Like the players, our coaches must be physically and mentally ready.”

After coming into the new position at the beginning of May, Stefanek hasn’t had much of an opportunity to bring in his own recruiting class; instead, he’s heavily relying on many of the players left in Wilson’s group from past years, including their U SPORTS National Championship run in 2021. 

That said, the Vikes are a much younger team than they were when they were eliminated from National Championship contention against the Montreal Carabins last November. Isaac Koch, their main offensive target man, has graduated, while Ian Whibley, a fourth-year athlete presumed to take on much of the attack, is out for the season with a long-term injury. 

Ian Whibley (Victoria Vikes Athletics)

“It’s going to be a learning curve, without a doubt, this season,” Stefanek said. “We’ve got talent here, but we’ve lost some of our most important players in Isaac [Koch] and Evan Libke. We’re working on our game model and the culture of our group, but it’s going to take some time.”

The Vikes still have a strong contingent of returning players for 2022. Stefanek has spoken with Wilson about the culture and many of the returning and incoming athletes ahead of the season. 

While the preseason hasn’t gone as swiftly as they would have hoped, including a 3-0 loss to rival UBC Thunderbirds, the Vikes have confidence knowing that this season is an adjustment year with a young group, one that fared quite well in the second half against UBC in that preseason match, holding the three-goal deficit they found at half time. 

Although injuries have already bit the Vikes and the forward position is in flux, the next era of men’s soccer at the University of Victoria has begun, and Stefanek is prepared to lead the group through the next several years as he looks to translate PacWest success into U SPORTS. 

“It’s going to take some time, we’re incredibly young, but we have some third, fourth and fifth years to help our group, and we’re looking for the first and second years to really step up this season,” he said.

Victoria opens the 2022 Canada West season with four road matches against UBCO, TRU, and UNBC, before Stefanek returns to U SPORTS and Centennial Stadium for the home opener on Sept. 9 against the UFV Cascades.

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