Hamilton, ON- Before games, Alena Spehar listens to music and doesn’t think about anything. It’s different than before. The fifth-year McMaster Marauders forward used to get in her own head before matches. She would imagine herself playing and that would stress her out.
Now, Spehar just focuses on having fun. Her and her teammates had much to celebrate about in the opening weekend of OUA women’s soccer action. The Marauders won both games in a weekend – something they didn’t do last year – with 3-2 and 4-0 victories over the Waterloo Warriors on Sept. 1 and 3.
Spehar headlined the weekend with a back-to-back hat tricks. Perhaps her new pregame routine has led to that. It’s a sign on her growth in confidence.
In her previous three seasons, the Milton native scored one career goal. Now, she’s scored six in two games.
Her goals have come off movement. The Marauders have moved the ball well and Spehar has finished. In their home opener on Sunday, they went on the offensive early and scored early as well.
“We love swinging [the ball] across the back line, being patient, not forcing,” Spehar said. “We’re a very possession-based team, waiting for the right moment.”
Spehar’s played her role in making her runs and capitalizing on those moments. She points out how her goals have come from when they’ve built from the back. “I think I’m just at the right place at the right time,” she added.
She admits that her ability to make those runs has become instinctual over time. Her confidence has grown. So has her composure when finishing. She used to psych herself out and get tense before taking that shot.
McMaster head coach Garrett Peters credits her hard work since training camp. “Every time she’s asked to do something, she just does it,” he noted. “She’s trusting the system and the system’s helping her get in the right place at the right time. Simple as that.”
One player who’s found Spehar on several of her goals is midfielder Jade Abreo. Peters describes her as the quarterback of the offence.
Abreo has four assists in two games. “She’s just creating over and over and over, and it’s making the offence run smoothly,” Peters noted.
Spehar recently found out how she and Abreo click on the field. Insane, she called it. “I know when Jade’s giving me that pass, it’s going to be the perfect weight, perfect spot and all I need to do is keep calm and finish,” Spehar noted. “She has amazing vision.”
Meanwhile, Abreo knows she can count on Spehar being there for her passes. “She’s doing a great job of making runs in behind,” Abreo said. “I love playing with her and finding her.”
Much like her teammate, this season’s also been a breakout one for Abreo. She didn’t play last season – her second year – due to injury.
It marks a new role for her. In the past, she said she’s been in more of a background role. She describes herself as a quiet and shy person.
“For this team, I think it’s very important that I take a step forward and realize I can make things happen,” Abreo noted. “I just need to concentrate and realize that my teammates believe in me.”
With that belief, she knows she can make any pass. It’s just a matter of picking out the right one and doing so.
Others have helped along the way. Her teammates for one. They tell her after every game how they’re her biggest fans. “I just appreciate that so much,” Abreo said.
Peters has also put his belief in her as well. The head coach will sometimes bring her aside and tell her messages like “you can do this” and point out how she can use her strengths.
“I am not very good in the air but on the ball is my strength,” Abreo points out. “So he tells me I can go get the ball wherever I want and I can do anything with it and we’ll adjust the team to it.”
A realization came over Abreo through Peters’ guidance and belief.
“There’s more that I can do and what’s the point of wasting my talent when I have it and I’m only here for a limited amount of years,” she said. “I really want to do Mac proud.”
It’s a new role for Peters as well. He was recently named interim head coach, replacing Miranda Wiley. He won a Canada West championship with the Saskatchewan Huskies in 2014. He was team captain and first team all-star the following season and captained Canada at the 2015 FISU games. He also competed in track and field during his time at Saskatchewan.
However, this is his first time coaching at the U SPORTS level. He’s coached different teams in Saskatchewan and has been the head coach FC London’s League1 women’s team since 2022.
Peters said the process has been “really tough”, having not known the players and the different system they’ve played.
“I’ve tried to adjust to them as they adjust to me as well,” he noted. “Honestly, they’ve made it easy because they’re so accommodating and it’s just a really solid group.”
He soon found out how much camaraderie and chemistry the players have amongst themselves – which has helped the adjustment process. He found out how they sacrifice for each other. He’s brought in some different ideas while the team as a group has executed them.
One of those ideas is a metaphor. He describes the game as four puzzle pieces – two attacking, two defending. “It really breaks down that game into those four pieces,” Spehar said. “So when you’re playing, you think about what piece you’re taking part of in that moment.”
Spehar calls Peters “a special coach” and said he describes the game in a way nobody else has. Abreo calls him “the perfect coach for us.”
Abreo points out how he picks them back up when they’re struggling. How he always believes in them – believing that anyone on the field can make an impact.
“For every game, he tells us that even if we play our worst, he knows we can still come out with three points,” she added. “Which is so important because as a team, that winning mentality – once you start it from the beginning, it just carries you through till the end.”
Given their strong start, who knows where the end will be and how far the team will go. The Marauders reached the OUA quarterfinals last season before losing to the Western Mustangs.
This season has been one of breakthroughs, a new coach and new beginnings. The Marauders are tied with the Windsor Lancers atop the OUA West standings. They face the Brock Badgers next in a home-and-home series – the same Badgers they defeated in the playoffs a year ago.
Abreo sees so much potential in this team. She talks about making the playoffs as their first goal. “And going all the way,” she added. “I think we can win a national championship.”
Featured Image: Owen Mertens/McMaster Athletics