CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. – Soccer brought Sam Smiley and Nacho Sanchez together.
That friendship, quickly forged as youngsters, continued to grow, along with their skills.
They compete against each other and were teammates as teenagers and now they are mainstays and leaders for the UPEI Panthers.
“Soccer has pretty well taken us everywhere together,” Sanchez said.
“It’s nice to go through soccer your whole life with one of your best buds,” added Smiley.
However, they didn’t play club ball together as kids and didn’t go to the same schools.
Sanchez, a 22-year-old Cornwall resident, was an East Wiltshire and Bluefield student while Smiley, a 22-year-old from Stratford, was a Stonepark and Charlottetown Rural grad.
“We were never in the same school, but we saw each other when we trained, just me and him, it would be every day,” Sanchez said. “(Soccer), for sure, brought us together.”
The two began playing together as 11-year-olds on a provincial team and continued to push each other to improve. They are both soccer aficionados; they are students of the game, watch it, play it and talk about it – a lot. The experience the two have playing together helps on the pitch.
“It's pretty telepathic almost between us,” said Sanchez, a midfielder. “Playing with Sam so much, I know what kind of run he’s going to make. I know I can trust him. If I play a certain ball, I know he’s going to get there.”
And while the two are close, they are anything but an island on the team.
“We have a great core group of about eight or nine guys that have all sort of come through at the same time together,” head coach Lewis Page said. “Sam and Nacho are a bit special because they’ve come on the journey together. Their soccer lives have been intertwined for a long time.”
Page said one of the great things about the job is watching the young players, like Sanchez and Smiley, grow, mature and become leaders.
Like most university teams, cracking the men’s Panthers lineup is hard to do as a rookie or a second-year player.
“It can be a really humbling process,” Page said. “Great players like these two, they learn from it and they grow and that’s how they become great players in this league. . .
“It’s a testament to the character of these two that they took on that challenge and they grew as players and that’s why they’re the leaders they are.”
Sanchez and Smiley said they had great veterans like Cole MacMillan to learn from in their first year as Panthers. They joined the Soccerstop P.E.I. F.C. club team the following summer and continued to grow while playing with the former Panthers and Atlantic University Sport stars.
They were in Scotland when the Panthers won bronze at the 2014 nationals on their home turf.
“It’s great for us because you see the opportunity that we have and most of us are Island guys,” said Sanchez. “We know we have the talent to compete this year and we’re ambitious.”
The Panthers started the season with back-to-back scoreless draws in St. John’s, N.L., against the Memorial Sea-Hawks. They host the Mount Allison Mounties today at 7:15 p.m. in their home opener.
“We said at the end of the two games (in St. John’s), it was almost a good thing we were so disappointed because we know how good we can be,” said Smiley, whose father, Glenn, starred at UPEI and played professionally with the Edmonton Drillers of the North American Soccer League. “It’s not that we played terrible, we just couldn't get the results we wanted.”
Page said playing in front of the home crowd on a Friday night is always special. Then they have the defending national champs, the Cape Breton Capers, coming in Sunday. He said the message to his players is to take care of business Friday night.
“Mount A is always a tricky game because if you underestimate them they can come and take points off you,” he said.
Centre back Cohen Reddick-Stevens is questionable for tonight’s game with a groin injury sustained in the first game of the season. Liam Doiron and Austin McKenzie both return to the lineup this weekend from injuries.
The Panthers are looking to use its home field to their advantage.
“We talk about Memorial being a tough place to play, (but) nobody likes coming to UPEI,” Page said. “When our fans are behind us, it’s a difficult place to come and get points and we love that.”
A look at this week’s UPEI Panthers athletics and recreation sports schedule.
5 p.m. – Mount Allison at UPEI (home opener)
7:15 p.m. – Mount Allison at UPEI (home opener)
7 p.m. – UPEI at St. Thomas (exhibition)
7 p.m. – Moncton at UPEI (exhibition)
UPEI Panther cross country invitational at Victoria Park
11 a.m. – Junior high male and female (3 km)
Noon – AUS/high school female (5 km)
12:45 p.m. – AUS/high school male (6 km)
2 p.m. – St. FX at UPEI (home opener)
2 p.m. – UPEI at UNB
7:30 p.m. – Panther night out at Red Shores at the Charlottetown Driving Park.
1 p.m. – Cape Breton at UPEI.
2 p.m. – UPEI vs. Saint Mary’s, in Truro, N.S., (exhibition)
3:15 p.m. – Cape Breton at UPEI.