Hamilton, ON- When the McMaster Marauders women’s soccer team’s senior’s night came and went, there were so many different emotions.
They had posters hanging up in the dressing room for each of the graduating players – with heartfelt messages. They had a ceremony honouring each of the seniors. Then they hit the pitch.
The Marauders fell behind 2-0 early to the Windsor Lancers before battling back to win 3-2 on Oct. 20. The seniors celebrated with their family and friends afterwards.
There were nine of them in total: Alena Spehar, Ignacia Jimenez, Emilie Calabrese, Victoria Orfei, Tiam Pourbakhtiari, Georgia Merriman, Joelle Chackal and Sara Vogel.
Goalkeeper Ali Mudie felt those range of emotions. She called the evening bittersweet. “It hurts because you made those memories,” she said. “And sad because you develop with these people.” She talked about how she developed with those seniors as her support system. She would see them every day. She would share her university experience with them.
And now their time together as a group was coming closer to the end.
When the game kicked off, after all the excitement of the ceremony, the Marauders found themselves in an early hole. Windsor created chances inside the McMaster box as Kailyn Robertson and Aislynn Essibrah scored to put the Lancers up 2-0 five minutes in. Having not conceded at home prior to that, the Marauders were in unfamiliar territory, staring at an early deficit.
Mudie recalls being nervous at first. As the goalie, she felt like she had to set the tone and be a leader. “Sometimes, I feel insecure being louder, because I’m like, ‘I just let that happen,’” she noted. “But you have to brush it off.”
She thought to herself: mistakes don’t define me as a player. Instead, she tried to focus on what she needed to do next. However, that didn’t come easy. Being a goalkeeper, she almost feels like all eyes are on her when she makes a mistake because they lead to goals.
“In the first half, I was hiding. I felt very stuck to my goal line,” Mudie recalled. “I needed to communicate. I needed to be bigger. I needed to be stronger.”
She focused on that in the second half. She also make several big saves to keep her team in the game as they mounted the comeback.
Spehar saw how the team continued to push and have faith. McMaster head coach Garrett Peters pointed out how the team’s been very process-orientated, regardless of the score. They have a systematic way of going about things. They have an overall team intention.
The Marauders carried on and goal-by-goal, clawed their way back. They won a penalty right before halftime which Calabrese slotted into the corner past the diving keeper.
Then, in the second half, the forward rocketed a shot that bounced off the crossbar while Spehar pounced on the rebound and scored. Suddenly they were tied.
Then, in the 80th minute, defender Lindsay Barwitzki lobbed a ball up to Spehar, who was dashing in. She sprinted onto the ball. Even as her first touch bounced off her leg in a weird way, she didn’t give up, knowing she could keep the ball at her feet. She switched it over to her left foot, noticed the goalie shifting to her right side and shot it to her left.
As the ball thumped into the net, Spehar celebrated with her teammates all running over to mob her at the corner flag. She was so excited. They were now up 3-2. “The celebration took all the energy out of me,” she said.
That moment also hasn’t come easily for her. Spehar remembers being scared when they went down by two. In the past, she remembered when she would feel negatively when she felt scared. This is it, she would think to herself. Spehar would feel butterflies in her stomach and would be always nervous. When she would get on the ball, she would be scared to make a mistake, getting into her own head.
This time was different. This time, she felt a positive response after being scared. This isn’t it, she thought. We can push back and we will win. Instead of nervousness, she felt excitement. Instead of shying away from the ball, she was excited to get on it and create chances.
Spehar had felt the excitement with it being senior’s night. She knew she had belief in herself and her teammates. “I was just very very happy while I was playing,” she added.
She remembers Peters telling the team at halftime that if they were tied or down a goal late in the game, to just clip the ball into the box so that someone will get there. Once she saw Barwitzki made her lob, Spehar’s adrenaline and excitement took over.
As the senior’s night drew to a close, it allowed Spehar to reflect on what it’s meant – for her and her fellow seniors. They’ve been together for the past three years and for some of them, more than that.
They’ve been through different head coaches and had to adapt and adapt and adapt. They’ve been through hardships as well. From that came a closeness and bond like no other.
“There are a lot of teams out there that claim that they are truly one big family,” Shepar noted. “But I feel like that’s very surface level for a lot of teams. With this team, when we say that, we really really mean it.”
She thinks about how many ups and downs the team’s gone through. Even on certain days, they’ll be players on the up and players on the dow. When they see players having a bad practice or anything else, they pick them up and encourage them.
Sephar’s been through those down moments before. She and a lot of her teammates were going through the same negative situation, she recalled. However, they didn’t know they were all experiencing it until some of them spoke up. “Let’s pick ourselves back up again, turn this around and turn this into a positive,” she remembers them saying. That led to a mood change.
Once they realized they shared the same experiences, they bonded over that. With that came trust with each other. For Spehar, her relationship with them became so much more than just teammates.
Being a quiet person, she used to only talk to two or three other people on a regular basis. She feels she’s growing out of that. She used to not really talk with her locker room neighbours. Now, she’s not afraid to do so. “Because I know that each and every person in there truly believes and loves each other,” she said.
Sephar notices it with others as well. “Now it’s more of an open-ended conversation in the change room,” she said. “I just think that a lot of people felt that individual relationships is beyond just being teammates.”
She thinks about everything they’ve gone through together and how she’s going to keep those friendships and relationships after they graduate and leave McMaster.
When Peters came into his role at McMaster this summer, he immediately saw the team’s closeness. He saw how the players were friends, how they cared about each other and wanted to be together. Not even just with soccer but with events outside of the sport.
From then on, he knew the training environment was going to be very good this season. “They love being together,” he said. “They’re working and grinding together and they like each other. It’s so important and I’m…very happy they’re able to establish that.”
Peters knew from experience what those personal bonds meant. He played soccer with the Saskatchewan Huskies. Some of his best friends came from that time. They still talk daily and attend each other’s weddings. They’re a special group that developed from their time together.
“There’s something about having a common goal and grinding and fighting and having failure and going through that as a group that just brings you together as well,” he noted. Peters said he hopes his players can continue to be best friends and have fun memories even after this season.
The Marauders’ family dynamic made Peters’ transition easy. They already had the team culture and mentality. They care about each other.
Part of that caring means pushing each other in any situation, even when it’s not easy. Sometimes, when it’s really difficult. It came up in the Windsor game. Calabrese had missed multiple penalty kicks in practice earlier in the week. However, the team holds her to account, has her back, trusts her and knows she would do whatever she can for the team, according to the head coach.
So, when Calabrese lined up for her penalty kick in the game, “we all knew she was going to score it,” Peters said. “That’s the trust that you develop and that trust is going to be what helps us in the playoffs here hopefully.”
The senior’s night win helped McMaster clinch a bye in the OUA playoffs. They would lose to the Western Mustangs 2-0 on the road on Oct. 22 to finish their regular season. They host their quarterfinal game on Oct. 28.
That lies ahead in the future. Back in the past on that evening against Windsor, Peters met with the senior players’ families after the game. He knows all the time the seniors have dedicated to soccer and academics. He knows the impact they’ve had on the program.
Mudie knows the impact they’ve had on her. She said the seniors have all been amazing. She thinks of how she fist bumps with her backline before every game – including Vogel. “With Sara leaving…we’ll have somebody else and we can still do those things but I think I’ll always think of Sara doing that,” Mudie noted. They’ve been fist-bumping for the past two years.
She’ll miss their leadership. “They’re who I look up to, they’re who I go to when I’m not feeling the best about myself,” she said. “But it’s also now my role to fill.”
While this is Spehar’s last season, she does have more eligibility left. She said they want to end on a high note. Maybe that’s an OUA championship or a trip to nationals? Maybe more than that?
“There’s been so much change with this class that we’ve had to endure,” she added. “It would just be such a bittersweet one to end on a high. Sad that it’s ending but really really happy that it’s a good end.”
Featured Image: Naziha Ali/McMaster Athletics