Hamilton, ON- When Jade Abreo crossed the ball in, Bryanna Caldwell knew where it was going. The third-year McMaster Marauders defender had scored plenty of headers before – six last season – and she did so once again.
It was the second half of a then scoreless game for McMaster’s women’s soccer team at home against the York Lions on Sept. 29. Abreo crossed the ball in, Caldwell’s head connected on it and sent it flying into the net.
Caldwell celebrated with her teammates as the Marauders took a 1-0 victory. Head coach Garrett Peters called her the best header in the box in the league. Defender Sara Vogel said she puts in a lot of work on her timing. Caldwell put it down to her height and physicality. Winning headers is one of her strengths.
“Just being able to jump and out jump somebody else and out win the ball in the air,” Caldwell said. “It’s something I love doing. It’s something I’m good at.”
Something her team has become good at is picking up wins. They have six in nine games. They would lose their first game of the season 2-0, in their rematch at York on Oct. 1 but remain atop the OUA West division. One could say they’re among the contenders for the OUA title.
To understand how the Marauders reached this point, you have to go back a few years. In 2021, Caldwell was a first-year player, fresh into university soccer. She was playing with many of her teammates for the first time.
Many of those teammates are part this year’s team. McMaster has 19 players in their third year of eligibility or more.
Along the way, the team went through their ups and downs. The Marauders lost a crucial season finale to TMU to miss the playoffs in 2021. They reached the playoffs in 2022 and won a home playoff game against the Brock Badgers before losing to the Western Mustangs in the OUA quarterfinals.
Over those past two seasons, they became used to playing with each other. Now, they’re a veteran team. They’re on the same page, according to Caldwell. They’ve gone through the growing process of getting players to be consistent and work together. They’re familiar with each other.
“We know how each person is going to play on the field,” Caldwell added. “We’re able to go a step further and start building on more tactics and more plays…we’re able to do more advanced things this year than previous years.”
Along with a first-year head coach in Peters, the Marauders have that experience together that some other teams may not have. This year’s group seems like they’re playing better than ever.
Vogel said they have a good core structure. “Everyone knows their role on the field and everyone just gets their job done and we get it done together in the end,” she noted.
In addition to that core group, there have been some important additions. First-year midfielder Ravina Braich has made an instant impact, starting in many games. In the lead up to Caldwell’s goal, she stepped in to draw away one of the York players marking Caldwell, opening up more space for her header.
Abreo is in her third season but did not play last year due to injury. The Mississauga native has five assists in two goals this season, being a quarterback for the offence, according to Peters. It’s an offence that’s tied for the fourth-most goals in the OUA.
As strong as their offence has been, their defence has been equally as good. They’ve yet to concede a goal in four home games. “They just want it more than anyone else,” Peters said. The headers they’re winning for example, he points out. They’ve made it a mission to make Ron Joyce Stadium a fortress, where they don’t let anyone in, Peters added.
Their midfield has been staying super tight and winning balls, according to Vogel. She sees Ignacia Jimenez, Tiam Pourbakhtiari and Megan Soo coming in to win those balls – which helps the defensive line.
“Then the balls coming through are really tough for the other team,” Vogel noted. “That’s kind of helped us continue to keep possession and go the other way.”
Two players at the symbolic centre of the team’s experience and defensive identity are Caldwell and Vogel. The two of them came into McMaster together in 2021.
They’ve played together over the past three years as centre back partners. They’re together in the OUA season at McMaster and then the League1 Ontario season at Hamilton United. They’re unbelievable and super reliable, according to Peters.
They’ve built chemistry playing together for so long, Vogel said. They’re always on the same page. “I just feel like I always know where she’s going to be,” Vogel added. “I know she’s going to be there to support me and covering me.”
When the Marauders were putting their goal-scoring play into motion against York, Vogel ran into the front post, drawing her defender with her. As the ball from Abreo sailed over her head, Vogel just knew Caldwell would be there to head it in.
They know each other so well, they can communicate to each other in one word, according to Caldwell. “If she does one thing, I know exactly what’s going to happen,” she added. “I know she always has my back. I have her back.” Caldwell called her an amazing centre back partner.
While it’s usually Caldwell scoring the goals off set pieces, in their game against the Laurier Golden Hawks on Sept. 24, it was Vogel scoring. Caldwell’s shot off a corner kick was stopped and the ball fell to her centre back partner, who slotted it in for her first career McMaster goal.
“I think it’s great being able to have us be so defensive and be such a cohesive unit at the back,” Caldwell said. “But then also be able to put those goals away upfront – both of us when we need to.”
As the team celebrated their win against York at home, one thing came to Caldwell’s mind: excitement.
Excitement over how they’ve taken a big step forward this season. Excitement when they learn and pick up something new in practice. When they score a goal. Excitement for every player on the field.
“I can’t even describe how exciting it is, how fun it is to be the person that puts in the goal, to have your teammate put in the goal, to have the players on the bench celebrating with you. Have the players in the stands celebrating,” Caldwell said. “It’s amazing.”
They were celebrating when Caldwell scored her header and her teammates rushed over to mob her. They were celebrating when the final whistle went that evening.
Can they continue to celebrate those type of moments as playoffs draw closer and closer? Can this group of veterans do what they’ve yet to do before – reach an OUA finals, make nationals and maybe even win an OUA or national championship?
Peters said they’re on the right trajectory. “In the playoffs, it’s anyone’s game,” he said. He cited some close games they’ve experienced already – two draws against Brock, close wins against York, Laurier and Waterloo. They’ve now experienced their first defeat of the season as well.
Nevertheless, that excitement Caldwell feels about what she calls “a really amazing group” isn’t just about the present. It’s also about the future.
“We’re really excited for where this program is going,” she said. “We think it’s going to be a really good year for us as it’s showing so far. So yeah, I’m just really excited for the rest of the season.”
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics