By Stuart Miller-Davis
Had there been no pandemic, Carleton University coach Kwesi Loney and his Ravens would have been welcoming U Sports’ top men’s soccer players to Ottawa this weekend for the national championships held at MNP Park.
But due to COVID-19, end-of-season championship tournaments across all university sports in Canada were cancelled. As of right now, next fall has been arranged as the earliest tentative return date for university championships.
Losing this year’s nationals brings a screeching halt to the ascension of a Ravens program that has become one of the best in the country in the few years since Loney took charge.
A former star on the pitch, he became head coach of his alma mater in 2016.
Just two years later, Loney’s Ravens won their first national medal since 2002. Carleton won the 2018 bronze medal decidedly with a 3-0 win against Trinity Western.
Last year, Loney was named 2019 U Sports coach of the year, recognizing his work in bringing the Ravens their first OUA gold medal since 2005. (Carleton lost the 2018 OUA title to York University.)
Later at the 2019 nationals the Ravens were knocked out in the quarterfinals by the UQTR Patriotes, the eventual national champions, and failed to bring home any hardware after losing the bronze medal game against perennial AUS powerhouse Cape Breton University.
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Carleton was ranked 3rd in the country at the end of last year (the final rankings were released before the national championships).
MORE CARLETON SOCCER: Ravens look ahead after disappointment at nationals
At the core that Loney’s developed is homegrown talent. In 2016, the Ravens and Loney brought in a monster class that included future All-Canadians Gabriel Bitar and Dario Conte. The connection to Carleton for both players was the opportunity to play at home, as the both come from the National Capital Region.
The draw of being able to compete for a hometown squad has persisted, as second year forward Quinn Honeyman-Wotton explains.
“Our team is basically 95 per cent kids from Ottawa,” he said. “It’s guys who’ve stayed together their whole lives and been friends since we were 10 years old. It really shows how much talent comes from the city.”
Honeyman-Wotton played for the Ottawa Fury but also with Ottawa South United (OSU) with Bitar, Conte and a number of other Ravens.
Loney also coaches OSU’s top men’s team, which debuted with a runner-up performance in its first Quebec premier league season this year. He said the tight knit soccer community in the Ottawa area has helped increase the level of play in the city.
“It really allows for players to get to know each other and to compete,” he said. “I think because of that the level of play has definitely increased from a club level. I see that every year, just based on the number of Ottawa players I get to choose from in terms of coming to my program (at Carleton).”
Another key to the rise of the Ravens program has been its player retention rate, Loney says. This has allowed the team to have consistency while adding extra talent to the mix.
“Over the last four or five years, I mean, we’ve been able to retain all of our players,” Loney said. “So that’s why you’re seeing the consistency in the success because we haven’t really lost any players, we’ve just been able to add additional quality to help us fill gaps or provide more depth and it’s kind of just made our environment a lot more competitive.”
AN INCALCULABLE LOSS
Forgoing the national championships this year hasn’t only hurt the players but also the wider university community, Loney said.
“I know the star players were looking forward to the nationals, but also our alumni, our student body, different members of our community. It was a great opportunity for us to showcase what we’ve been doing for the past three, four years with this with this team,” Loney said.
He added that his players weren’t only fueled by the rare opportunity to compete as a top entrant in a national championship hosted in front of their friends and families but that they were also looking forward to displaying the city of Ottawa as a growing hotbed for soccer talent.
Loney and the Ravens will get the chance to exhibit both their locally groomed talent and the overall level of play in university soccer in Canada next year, as Carleton has been awarded a hosting do-over because of the pandemic.
“We’re really looking forward to not just performing well, but also as well showcasing what university soccer is now like in our country by bringing all the top programs here to Ottawa and giving the local community a great opportunity to see the level and quality of play,” Loney said.
“It really would’ve put a nice stamp (this year) on our local soccer clubs and just the work that they’ve done to develop the type of players that we have and for those guys to be on the stage where they can excel in their hometown, friends and families.”