By Martin Cleary
The soccer dream just keeps getting better and better for Ottawa’s Katie Ozard.
More than a decade ago, she was introduced to the game through the Timbits program and her dad Ian, who was a former player, was serving as her coach.
She took to the game like iron filings to a magnet, progressed through grassroots programs to competitive teams, and this summer saw her dedication and skills make her feel like a million dollars.
Ozard, 15, became the latest talented player from the Ottawa South United organization to be accepted into the full-time Canada Soccer National Development Centre – Ontario program.
The National Development Centre – Ontario is a partnership between Canada Soccer, Ontario Soccer, Own the Podium, Sport Canada, the Canadian Sports Institute Ontario and Bill Crothers Secondary School to develop the next wave of players for the national women’s program.
There also are National Development Centres in British Columbia and Quebec as well as Excel Programs in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
For the past three months, Ozard has been part of the elite youth provincial soccer program, which focuses on skill enhancement, high-level competition and multiple aspects of soccer development. The goals are playing for the national women’s team, earning an academic scholarship to a quality university or playing professionally overseas. Or, maybe all three.
Ozard was team captain of the highly successful OSU 2007 girls’ team, which won back-to-back Ontario Player Development League championships.
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Five members of that squad have now graduated to the NDC. Twin sisters Annabelle and Isabelle Chukwu, Bianca Hanisch and Kayla DiTiero were the original four selected from the OSU 2007 team and Ozard followed several months later on Aug. 10. Hanisch has already completed one full year at the centre and helped her team win the 2022 League1 Ontario women’s championship this summer.
Annabelle, 15, has been an instant hit, playing for Canada this year at the CONCACAF girls’ U15 championship in Tampa and the FIFA U17 women’s World Cup in India. She played in two World Cup games, entering as a substitute, and scored the only goal in Canada’s 1-1 draw with France. Annabelle was recently named to the national senior women’s team for a two-game international series on the road against Brazil on Nov. 11 and Nov. 15.
The OSU 2008 team has already had four players accepted into the NDC program – Mya Angus, Naomi Lofthouse, Felicia Hanisch and Mia Ugarte. They will start sometime in 2023.
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“I am very, very excited. I think it’s a great opportunity. It was a long process,” Ozard said in a phone interview on Monday.
During the past year, Ozard has made numerous trips to Toronto to attend tryout sessions for the NDC program.
“This means everything to me. I’ve worked for this for so long. It has been a lot of hard work and time commitment,” she added.
When Ozard learned in August she had been accepted into the specialized training program, it was cause for a lot of celebration, but also a lot of difficult family planning.
“It was a no-brainer,” Katie quipped about how easy it was to say yes to joining the national-level program. “It’s what I have worked towards for so long. It is difficult to leave my school and team after three years. But it is such an amazing opportunity.
“The centre will help me because of the environment. We all have the same long-term goal – playing on the national team. It’s (elite) soccer, instead of just for fun.”
Ozard will travel to Toronto next week for a five-day training session, which will lead into a competition between the three National Development Centres in Laval. She also will attend a showcase tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina, in December.
At the end of December, Ozard and her mother Dr. Jennifer Ozard, a former OSU team manager and trainer, will move to the Markham area for six months to ease into the family’s new soccer adventure. Ian Ozard and son Owain, an OSU boys’ 2009 soccer player, will remain in Ottawa.
Katie Ozard, a 4.0 grade-point average honours student at St. Joseph Catholic High School, will complete her Grade 10 first-semester academic studies virtually, while living in Markham. For the second semester, she will enrol at Bill Crothers Secondary School.
Dr. Ozard, a palliative care physician, will take a six-month sabbatical from the Maycourt and Ruddy-Shenkman Hospices. But she will work at the Markham-Stouffville Hospital for the first half of 2023, replacing another doctor.
“For Katie, she was all in,” Dr. Ozard said about her daughter’s quest to join the NDC. “It has been her dream. She has worked for this and this is her reward.
“For me and my husband, it will be difficult. But we never questioned it. We will make it happen. We told Katie, if you make it, we will support you to make it work.”
Ozard is considered one of the top youth centre defenders for her age group in Canada. Whether athletically or academically, she has the internal drive to be successful. She also is disciplined and calm under pressure.
“She’s a natural collaborative style leader and that over the past year she has shown us her passion as well as her grit and resilience, which are characteristics that will serve her well in both her education and future soccer career,” Dr. Ozard wrote in an email.
When Ozard joins her former OSU 2007 teammates at the NDC, it will be the perfect way to ease into the next step up the soccer ladder.
“It’s a lot less nerve-wracking,” Ozard said. “Everyone comes together as a team. We’re fortunate that everyone wants to work hard and push each other.”
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 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 email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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