Hamilton, ON- On Emilie Calabrese’s wrists are the initials N.R. The McMaster Marauders fourth-year midfielder writes it on there every game this season. “No Regrets” is what it stands for.
It’s something Calabrese’s taken to heart in her final year at McMaster – the end of a five-year journey for Ancaster midfielder. For the team’s group of seniors, it’s also their final season together.
It’s arguably their best one yet. This group of Marauders women’s soccer did what they hadn’t done before: reach the OUA semi-finals. The last time McMaster was at that stage was in 2018. This group is here for the first time.
They did so after beating the Guelph Gryphons 3-2 at home in their OUA quarterfinal matchup on Oct. 28. They fell behind early when Olivia Rizakos scored to put the visitors up but rallied for the 2-1 victory.
Calabrese scored both McMaster goals during the victory. McMaster’s players and coaches celebrated with their family and friends afterwards. “Honestly, it feels surreal,” Calabrese said.
All season long, they’ve been working for this moment. The OUA playoffs that is. Now it finally arrived.
The players and coaches knew their preparation. Even after they fell behind, they didn’t flinch, according to head coach Garrett Peters. “This team has got great resilience,” Peters said. “They all battle for each other.”
They battled for every loose ball, every 50-50 challenge and won many of those. It’s a testament to their sheer will. They don’t spend a lot of time working on loose balls, Peters pointed out. However, there’s a common understanding among the players to do whatever it takes to help them win. Against Guelph, it meant winning those battles.
McMaster pressed up the pitch constantly, which eventually paid off. First-year midfielder Ravina Braich won the ball inside the Guelph box and was fouled, earning a penalty.
Calabrese stepped up to take it. She already scored a penalty the previous week versus the Windsor Lancers, shooting it past the outstretched keeper. This time, she did so again to tie the game, hitting the corner.
The Marauders had been practicing them in their training sessions. Peters knew Calabrese had no anxiety. He knew she was going to score.
As the midfielder lined up for the kick, she thought of what Peters told them: as long as you remain calm, hit the net and choose your spot beforehand, then it’ll be really hard for the goalie to save it.
“As long as you’re confident in where you’re going to shoot, there’s nothing to worry about,” she said. Calabrese took a breath, chose her spot and buried it.
The game remained deadlocked at one as time ticked closer to 90 minutes. Both sides had their chances but couldn’t convert. Then in the 85th minute, McMaster found their breakthrough.
The ball was whipped ahead to forward Alena Spehar, who was dashing in on the right-hand side. Calabrese knew Spehar was going to win the ball so she thought: “Where does she need me?”
In the box, she thought, so Calabrese made her run, Spehar dished the ball over and she finished it into the left corner. Her teammates erupted in applause. As did the crowd. Calabrese felt that surreal feeling, knowing how hard they worked to push for the winning marker.
After defending for the rest of the game – including a few key saves by goalkeeper Ali Mudie – the Marauders were celebrating the result as well. They were now headed to the OUA semi-finals.
Calabrese thought of their whole team effort. How everyone contributed – even those who didn’t see the field. “It feels surreal but at the same time, we earned this,” she said.
All career long, Calabrese’s been working towards this moment. She didn’t play at in her first season at McMaster in 2019. She was really down about it.
She was very quiet back then, keeping to herself. Then, their next season was cancelled due to COVID-19. When action resumed in 2021, Calabrese was really motivated by not playing in her first year.
So, she kept working at it. “A grind”, she called it. Calabrese started to see the field and played in 10 games in 2021, scoring three goals and earning an OUA Central All-Star nod.
She continued to grind – during the season and the long offseason – as she continued to improve. She played for Hamilton United in the summertime.
She started speaking up as well. By 2021, some of the seniors from her first season were gone. Now it was upon her to be a leader.
Calabrese did so, becoming more comfortable with it as well. This year, she’s a team captain. Back in 2019, she couldn’t image herself giving feedback to teammates. Now, she has the confidence to do so.
It’s not easy to do but she understood how important it was for the players to keep each accountable on the field.
Calm. That’s how teammate and fellow senior Joelle Chackal describes her. Both with her play and her words. “If anything’s going wrong, she can keep us level-headed,” Chackal said.
Chackal has played with Calabrese since 2021. She sees how she talks to teammates with positivity and calmness. She sees how Calabrese approaches each person how they need to be approached. “Everything she says is literally gold,” Chackal said.
She sees how Calabrese trusts her. From little talks before games to putting her hand on Chackal’s shoulder and telling her, ‘you got this’. Those little things made a huge difference for her confidence.
Before their game against Guelph, it was Chackal’s turn to show her confidence in Calabrese. “Em, I think you’re going to score a really nice goal today,” Chackal remembers telling her. “She was shook and I’m like, ‘trust me’”.
After Calabrese scored the winning goal, Chackal’s mind flashed back to their pre-game talk. That’s crazy, Chackal thought.
On Chackal’s wrist are the numbers 110. Before the season, the team talked about writing one thing on their wrist that would speak to them. If anything went wrong, they would look at it.
110 means 110 percent. It means giving their all. It means doing so against Guelph – in everything – according to Chackal. Every pass, every tackle, every play.
This might be Chackal’s last season as well. She hasn’t decided yet if she will return but celebrated her senior’s night anyways just in case. She finds herself cherishing every moment they have – every game, every practice and even every treatment session – and making the best of it.
No regrets. That’s what Calabrese thinks about and sees when she looks at her wrist. Leaving it all out on the field. It’s something her teammates think about as well.
“When you have that many people leaving it all out, it’s so meaningful and just an amazing experience,” she said.
For her, it’s meant pushing herself more than before. Midway through the season, she hit a plateau. She approached Peters for feedback. She asked him how she could improve.
His response? It wasn’t that she was doing anything wrong. “Someone on the team has to push a little further to be the one who makes that final pass, who makes that final goal,” he told her. “You can’t just be complacent with being good.”
After hearing those words, Calabrese felt motivated to push more and give more. She felt her coach’s confidence and belief in her.
She said that jumpstarted her performance in the past few games. It comes up in the back of her head when she’s playing. “When your coach has that much confidence in you, it propels you forward like nothing else,” Calabrese said.
Are the Marauders reaching their peak this season? Chackal said they’re at a peak right now – riding a wave with so much left to do. Calabrese always knew the potential the team had. It was just missing that final piece. “Having a coach who believes in us,” she said of Peters. “It goes a long way.”
There’s that final season motivation pushing them as well. The journey to get here has been special.
Chackal called it the best experience of her life. They’re the best group of teammates and coaches she’s ever met. “The group is so so supportive,” she added. “We have so much talent on this team, it’s incredible.”
Calabrese experiences the feeling of family with them. They would do literally anything for each other on and off the field, according to her. She’s never had an experience like this on any team she’s been on.
As for this year’s experience? “It’s literally exactly what any of us could have asked for,” Calabrese said. “I think it’s been a long time coming since the group came together.”
The experience isn’t over yet. The Marauders will face the Ottawa Gee-Gees on Nov. 1 in the semi-finals for a spot in the OUA finals and nationals. Even with a defeat, they could reach nationals through a bronze medal game should the nationals host Queen’s Gaels also advance to the OUA finals.
Peters said it’s a going to be a very tough game. “But if we go in there and perform our best, we’re going to have an opportunity,” he noted. “We’re just excited for the opportunity.”
Calabrese acknowledged that she will feel sad when it’s all over but is also excited for what’s ahead – this season and beyond. “I’m so excited to see how we’re going to keep progressing and all the amazing things we’ll accomplish,” she added. “This is just the beginning.”
What will those accomplishments be this year? Will they beat Ottawa and reach nationals? Time will tell. However, one thing seems certain: Calabrese and her teammates will go forward with the words they live by and are written on their wrists: no regrets.
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics