Hamilton, ON- On a cold foggy November night at Ron Joyce Stadium, the McMaster Marauders men’s soccer team had a game to remember.
Cheered on by their large group of supporters, the Marauders clinched their spot in the OUA finals and U SPORTS nationals with a 3-0 triumph over the Nipissing Lakers in the OUA semi-finals.
While the final score showed their offensive execution, the start of the first half didn’t. McMaster took a while to settle into the game as it was the visitors generated more chances early on. They outshot the Marauders 7-4 in the first half.
However, the home team grew into the game more and more as time went along. “The mindset changed,” forward Ed Bryan Florent noted. “First half, we were playing a little slow. We weren’t finding the tempo of the game.” In the second half, they were able to pick it up and accelerate things with more speed and grit, according to him.
At halftime, they made a tactical adjustment to have a more defensive structure, according to Marauders head coach Chris Markou. He said it included putting more “defensive steel” in the middle, allowing the strikers to play higher up the field.
The adjustment worked In the 60th minute, midfielder Sean Ross found forward Miles Green just outside the box. Green whipped in a shot that went past everyone and into the net. The crowd erupted in applause.
McMaster kept going forward. Just over 10 minutes later, forward Amir Shirazi passed the ball to Green in the box. He buried it to make it 2-0. More roars and cheers from the crowd.
“We exposed the areas we needed to expose,” Markou said. “Coincidentally, that’s where our goals came from.”
They also came from practice, as they worked on fullback and wingback play, getting players higher up the field, according to Markou.
The Marauders played through their fullbacks and wingbacks off the counter at times. On the other end, they defended Nipissing’s crosses and corners. They focused and worked on defending set pieces as well leading up to the game.
“We defend our set pieces and we attack our set pieces with a bit of ferocity and a willingness to win and sacrifice for each other,” Markou noted.
In the 84th minute, midfielder Justin Baker crossed the ball into the box and Bryan Florent finished it. 3-0.
It was Bryan Florent’s first goal since coming back from injury in their OUA quarterfinal win over Guelph. He called it tough working his way back from injury.
“At first, you’re injured and you accept reality,” he said. “There comes a time where you might come back and help your team and you’re incapable of doing such things because you’re still injured and you’re still unfit.”
He credited the team’s strength and conditioning staff for helping him recover from his injury. He credited the coaches for giving him the confidence to play. He came on in the second half and made his impact.
“This is the best game for Ed to come back into,” Markou noted. “A home crowd. A playoff game. Ed thrives in situations like that.”
As time ticked away and the final whistle sounded, the players and coaches celebrated. They did the Viking clap in front of that crowd. They celebrated in the locker room, music blaring.
“To be honest, I couldn’t believe it. I can’t even explain the feeling,” Bryan Florent said. “It was just a moment of joy. A moment of pure ecstasy, pure excitation and excitement.”
During a season of growth and progress, of ups and downs and learning, they had just clinched their spot in the OUA finals. They had just clinched their trip to U SPORTS nationals.
Bryan Florent talks about the weird transition from last year to this year. They had a new head coach and several new players. He called it tough in the beginning, but they came together. They learned to trust each other.
“Then we were able to find our feet. We were able to find that cohesion and that unity,” he added. “This is the reason why we are where we are right now.”
He said that has helped them through difficult moments and will do so in the future.
They finished second in the OUA West in the regular season to earn home field advantage. The Marauders then avenged an early season defeat to defending OUA champion Guelph by beating them in the quarterfinals.
It’s the players’ first time being at this stage of the playoffs. Many years ago, Markou did so as a player.
He was a CIAU All-Canadian and a OUAA All-Star at McMaster. He won an OUAA title in 1992 and medaled at nationals numerous times.
The first-time head coach talks with the current players about his experiences. “I hope they retain what I tell them and they learn from what I tell them because there’s value in what I share with them,” he noted.
What did he tell them going into the Nipissing game?
“Embrace the moment,” he recalled. “But realize this could be a very emotional game, being at home in front of your crowd.”
He talked to them about being calm, being decisive at key moments during the game. The team stayed calm at halftime and made those decisive plays in the second half.
Markou recognized the moment: the crowd support, the stakes, the emotions of victory in an OUA semi-finals. His former teammates were supporting them in the stands. He remembers the unity he had playing with them back in the day, the lifelong bonds they built. He remembers the stories they tell.
“What you remember most is the feeling you had…with people that have a common goal and you’re fighting for something together,” Markou said. “It’s that brotherhood that I wanted to bring.”
Now, he’s sharing that experience with the current players. Now, he’s seeing that brotherhood, those bonds and those memories form for them as well. As they head off to play the TMU Bold in the OUA finals and Kamloops for nationals, more memories are yet to be formed, more stories to be told.
“I didn’t want them to have any regrets today,” Markou added. “I want them to reflect on this game, 10, 15 years from now and I wanted them to have a positive moment. I think they’ll remember this game forever.”
Featured Image: Marisa Settimi/McMaster Athletics