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UPEI men's soccer team set for quarter-final Thursday

Fourth-year centre back Ben Keefe, left, and third-year midfielder Sam Smiley have been a large part of UPEI’s run to the AUS men’s soccer championship which starts Thursday in Sydney, N.S.
Fourth-year centre back Ben Keefe, left, and third-year midfielder Sam Smiley have been a large part of UPEI’s run to the AUS men’s soccer championship which starts Thursday in Sydney, N.S. - Charles Reid/The Guardian

Team rides youngsters and veterans in new roles

It ain’t been a cakewalk for the UPEI Panthers men’s soccer team this season, but you won’t hear anyone complain as the squad takes on the Acadia Axemen to open the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) championship Thursday in Sydney, N.S.

Game time for the quarter-final is 7 p.m.

With UPEI’s numerous injuries, including veteran centre back Mark Smith lost three games into the year with a concussion, backups like Ben Keefe and youngsters such as third-year striker Sam Smiley found themselves in new positions.

And they responded. For instance, Keefe assumed Smith’s role in the backfield and started the last nine games and Smiley netted career- and team-highs of six goals.

For Smiley, the team just did what it had to do.

“(We) took a leadership role, everyone stepped up knowing that we lost several key guys, knowing we had to step up, did what had to be done. We have a good group of guys to do it,” said the Stratford native, who was named an AUS second team all-star. “The last five games we’ve played like they were playoff games. It’s tough to relax, but you have to be confident and hopefully the results will take care of themselves.”

That said, UPEI (5-5-2) was outside the playoff field looking in as the regular season wrapped last weekend. But it got 1-1 draw with Acadia (5-4-3), a 1-0 win over Dalhousie and a Memorial loss to slide into the fifth playoff spot, essentially winning its way into the post-season.

So head coach Lewis Page knows much of that is on his charges who responded despite missing Smith, rookie strikers Viktor Guiterrez and Donovan Wyand and having striker Mohammad Jaber hobbled for much of the season.

“In the last half of the season, the team grew up a lot,” said Page. “I think we’re a team with a really good soccer IQ. We’re one of the more technical teams. If we play at speed, we can play with anyone in the league.”

Host Cape Breton University ran roughshod over the AUS this season, going 11-0-1 and netting 32 goals versus just six goals against; it and second-ranked St. FX (9-1-2) earned byes into the semifinal round. Thursday’s other quarter-final has Memorial facing UNB.

Keefe’s new role proved a promotion for the New Haven native who spent much of his career on the bench, although it wasn’t wasted time.

“I knew as soon as (Smith’s injury) happened I knew I’d be the next in line and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of being there in important moments. It’s a different perspective as a role player, you see the game differently… you see what the coaches see,” said Keefe. “(Acadia’s) a good team. A tough opponent. We’ve got to be ready, fit for the task.”

The semis are Friday at 4 and 7 p.m., followed by the title game Sunday at 2 p.m.

The AUS winner and runner-up go the nationals Nov. 9-12 in Kamloops, B.C.

Winsloe South native Zachary Visser, a third-year defender with Acadia, won the AUS student-athlete community service award. The chemistry student played in 11 of 12 games for the Axemen this season, while maintaining a 3.98 cumulative grade point average and volunteering in several community initiatives.

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When They Play:

Schedule for the AUS men’s soccer championship Thursday through Sunday in Sydney, N.S.

Teams (ranking, record,) - Cape Breton (1st, 11-0-1, semifinal bye ), St. FX (2nd, 9-1-2, semifinal bye), UNB (3rd, 7-3-2), Acadia (4th, 5-4-3), UPEI (5th, 5-5-2), Memorial (6th, 5-6-1).

THURSDAY

4 p.m. - Memorial vs. UNB, quarter-final

7 p.m. - UPEI vs. Acadia, quarter-final

FRIDAY

4 p.m. - Lowest remaining seed vs. Cape Breton, semifinal

7 p.m. - Highest remaining seed vs. St. FX, semifinal

SUNDAY

2 p.m. - Championship game.

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Panther action

Following are upcoming UPEI games:

Today

- Men’s soccer vs. Acadia, AUS quarter-final, at CBU, 7 p.m.

Friday

- Women’s basketball, at SMU, 6 p.m.

- Women’s hockey, vs. Dal, 7 p.m.

- Men’s basketball, at SMU, 8 p.m.

Saturday

- Men’s rugby, championship game, at UNB, 2:30 p.m.

- Women’s basketball, at SMU, 6 p.m.

- Men’s hockey, vs. UNB, 7 p.m.

- Men’s basketball, at SMU, 8 p.m.

Sunday

- Women’s hockey, at St. F.X., 3 p.m.

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