The Niagara Knights men's soccer program came up one win short of a chance to compete in the OCAA gold medal game a year ago. Before they can try and get over that hump this year, they will need to work tirelessly once again to get back to that spot as the regular season opens up this weekend.
Last season the Knights finished 6-2-2 in the OCAA West division. It was their best finish ever in OCAA regular season play en route to a second-place finish in the division and their fifth straight playoff berth. The undefeated Fanshawe Falcons were the only team that the Knights failed to beat, picking up their only two losses in each of their two matches against the Falcons.
This season will be a test for the Knights, however, as they will be losing some very important pieces from their 2016-17 roster. Out of their four OCAA West all-star selections from last season only one Jordi Amores (St. Catharines) returns to the Knights lineup. Goalkeeper Sam Robson, forward Carlos Williams and captain Andrew Currie (Ingersoll) have all graduated.
The three all-stars that are not returning will leave big shoes to fill as this season kicks off. Williams broke the program record for career goals last year finishing his Knights career with 15 tallies, including six goals last season. In net Robson only conceded three goals in his seven games that he played last season, good enough for a stingy 0.48 goals against average and team MVP honours. Currie was the team's captain, a shutdown defender his entire career and was named the 2017-18 OCAA West Defensive Player of the Year.
In order to compensate for those losses, Head Coach Frank DeChellis will rely on a combination of veterans and a strong core of new recruits. He believes that the program's recent successes are a key factor in being able to consistently replenish the roster each season.
"The program is at a point where our reputation is doing some of the recruiting for us," said DeChellis. "People see Niagara College Knights Soccer as a destination for their post-secondary soccer ambitions."
Joining the squad this year will be highly touted recruit Oti Frigole (St. Catharines). The two-time MVP of the Niagara Knights Soccer showcase will look to fill the scoring void left by Williams. Frigole joins a roster that features a strong veteran presence.
DeChellis will lean on his veterans to provide leadership to the incoming crop of rookies. "We need our returning guys to set the tone for the rookies and they are taking that responsibility seriously," the coach said of he returnees. Players returning to the lineup include the All-Star Amores and as well as forward Jacob Therrien (Welland), midfielder Alex Latham (Welland), and defenders David Fimiak (St. Catharines), and Quinton Leone (Niagara Falls) who are hungry to improve upon previous years successes.
The Knights will play in a tough division that not only features the Falcons, but also features tough opponents in the St. Clair Saints, Redeemer Royals, Mohawk Mountaineers and the Lambton Lions. On top of being in a strong division, DeChellis sees another element that could make things a little more interesting.
"We are in a very competitive division," said DeChellis. "A big mix of playing on artificial turf and grass adds an interesting dimension to the league."
DeChellis is the program's longest tenured coach, piling up a 21-23-10 record since taking over the team as head coach back in 2012. On top of regular season play, he has also coached the team to a 6-8 record in the playoffs.
The men will look to get things started out on the right foot when they take on the Mohawk Mountaineers to open up their new campaign. Last season, the Knights defeated the Mountaineers 2-0 when they battled at the Knights home field, Youngs Sportsplex. The Knights have a fantastic career record on the turf at Youngs, holding a 12-6-5 record since beginning play there in 2013.
DeChellis believes that this team is ready to compete and keep their reputation as a tough OCAA opponent. "Every year tryouts are more difficult because we attract more high quality players seeking trials."
The Niagara Knights will host the Mohawk Mountaineers when they open their season on Saturday, September 8th at Youngs Sportsplex (570 River Road, Welland). The game will be a double header with the women playing first at 2pm, followed by the men at 4pm. Admission is free for all spectators.