HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Owen McKee has many skills as a soccer player, but the greatest talents he has developed over the past three seasons have nothing to do with kicking, heading or manoeuvring a ball.
When the striker arrived at the University of Guelph in 2019 from Earl of March Secondary School in Kanata, he diligently worked on his soccer drills in practice with the Gryphons. But when it came time for weekend OUA games, he sat on the bench, working on his patience and adapting to the next level of the game by watching and learning from his older teammates.
That’s understandable given McKee only played a small segment of one mid-season game against the University of Western in his 2019 freshman year.
That’s understandable given the entire 2020-21 OUA season was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic and there were no games to complement any practices.
And it was understandable that McKee would find himself as a reserve player at the start of the 2021-22 university season. The learning process of how to become an Ontario university soccer player was still in progress.
Veteran Guelph head coach Keith Mason gave McKee two match opportunities in the Gryphons’ first five games this fall. In his 81 minutes of play, he took two shots with one hitting the target. But McKee didn’t quite feel at home in his early going.
“I played against Windsor and there were some nerves,” McKee said in a phone interview. “They had a rough centre back and I was fouled many times. It was scrappy and there was heckling. It was an interesting game for my first match.
“I realized I’ve got to be stronger and a bigger player. I didn’t get down. I’m kind of a confident person. One goal can change everything and one goal did.”
That’s exactly what happened.
In the Gryphons’ seventh game, McKee came off the bench in a home game against Brock University and “really stood out with good runs… and looked dangerous to score a goal,” according to Mason.
McKee was rewarded with a start in the second match of that late October home-away series against Brock. Feeling comfortable and confident in his new role, he scored his first university goal, which has sparked a phenomenal four-week period for McKee.
In the Gryphons’ final three regular-season games, McKee counted one goal and an assist against Wilfrid Laurier as well as putting four of his five shots on goal.
But he’s making his biggest contributions in the playoffs.
The Gryphons tied Ontario Tech 1-1 in the OUA quarterfinals, but won 4-2 on penalty kicks, including the second goal by McKee.
In the semifinals, McKee scored the only goal of the game as the Gryphons blanked the Carleton Ravens 1-0.
Nationally ranked at No. 3 at the time, Gryphons defeated No. 2 York Lions 3-2 in the OUA championship game on their home field. McKee was instrumental in the opening two goals. He scored the first goal off a crossing pass and set up the second by Lucas Doros, when he drew a penalty as he chased a long ball into the York box.
McKee’s performances in the OUA playoffs also earned him the BioSteel Gryphon athlete of the week award.
Hometown nationals for visiting Gryphon
And McKee’s magical offensive touch continued into the U Sports national championships, which started Thursday with four quarterfinal games at the Carleton Ravens Perch. McKee and Alex Zis scored as Guelph shut out Saint Mary’s Huskies 2-0 in the opening quarterfinal. That goal was the fifth for McKee in his past seven games.
Guelph will advance to Saturday’s semifinals against the Montréal Carabins, which defeated Victoria Vikes 2-1. Montréal won the game on a 4-3 penalty-kick decision.
In the other half of the draw, Cape Breton downed Laval 3-2 in extra time, while the host Carleton Ravens were set to take on the University of British Columbia in the evening match.
Read More: ‘We’re ready to go’: Ravens draw UBC in first match of hometown national tournament
“Owen is a prime example of what university soccer is all about,” Mason said in an interview earlier this week. “It takes time to adapt.
“Midway through the season I felt he was a good player at this level, his confidence was great and his belief in himself was great. He’s now an integral part of our starting 11.”
On the field, McKee is all about pace, speed and work ethic on offence and defence.
“He’s a natural finisher,” Mason added. “In practice, he does it all the time. He knows how to put it in. He needed the timing to adapt to the pace of the university level.”
A product of the West Ottawa Soccer Club program, McKee had a chance to develop his game further last summer as he was part of the inaugural Guelph United Football Club, which won the 2021 Ontario League1 men’s championship. But he also was in a familiar watching and learning mode as he only played 47 minutes in four games.
“I was still on a bit of a learning curve. I’m in my third year (at Guelph), but I haven’t played that much. I’m still learning the systems, my expectations and knowing how the OUA works,” McKee said the night before the Gryphons played their U Sports national quarterfinal.
When he was on the bench for the Gryphons’ first five games, he studied the play of striker Mitch Lefebvre, a fifth-year player from Victoria. He wanted to incorporate Lefebvre’s style into his own game.
After showing he was ready to be considered for a starting role in the first game of a home-and-away series with Brock, McKee was ready for that special moment.
“Getting to start was very exciting, especially when I heard my name called for the starting lineup,” he said. “It gives me more time on the field and I felt like an OUA quality striker.
“In the first 20 minutes (against Brock), we got our first goal and then I scored our second goal. It was a great start and that started my confidence. I felt I can be someone to help the team win an OUA title.”
Earning that start and scoring his first goal was his ticket to feeling like an OUA soccer player.
“I do belong here,” McKee reasoned. “Getting that one goal was very important. From there, I became more consistent. This is where I belong and ever since I have been fighting for my spot. There’s no guarantee (it’s a permanent role).”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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