The veteran-laden St. F.X. X-Men have set their sights on an Atlantic University Sport (AUS) championship.
“We are going to graduate 10 guys this year, which is a really big crop of seniors,” head coach Graham Kennedy said in an interview [Aug. 21], just as training camp was set to begin.
“It is a tribute to our program – I know an awful lot of programs where they graduate three or four seniors, and we are graduating 10.”
He added “the flipside of that positive” is the need for a “massive reconstruction project.”
“We have brought in more freshman this year than we would normally bring in, simply because we are losing so many next year, so it is going to increase the size of the team,” Kennedy said.
Training camp started with 28 to 30 players, as opposed to the usual 23 or 24, including 16 newcomers – freshmen, transfers and walk-ons.
For the X-Men head coach, recruits Blake Fenton (left side) and Seamus MacDonald (goalkeeper), an Antigonish native, are the top recruits coming out of high school in Atlantic Canada.
“He is a tremendous player and we are lucky to get him. He is fast, he is attack-minded – he can get in behind opposition defenses,” Kennedy said of the Halifax product.
“He is a guy who is going to play a lot of minutes as a freshman, and that’s tough on this team.”
Kennedy said MacDonald has the tools to be an AUS all-star.
“He has got distribution. He can throw. He can kick – from his hands and from the ground – and he is a very good shot stopper,” he said.
“His footwork is fantastic. You could actually make a case that he would have a shot of making the team as a field player because his feet are so good.”
Kennedy noted MacDonald should “really push” the returning veteran tandem of Matthew Lannan and Thomas Pieroway.
“Seamus has got a tremendous future here, if he stays healthy,” he said.
Kennedy said Will Venoit is a “late-developing keeper,” who played this summer, as an 18-year-old, in the Nova Scotia Soccer League (NSSL).
“He is still filling out his body and is still developing physically, but he is a kid that I think – you just can’t coach someone to be 6’8” – with work and strength development, he is going to be a tremendous addition to the team,” he added.
Kennedy said Nicholas Aquino was a top player with Team Nova Scotia at the recent Canada Summer Games.
“He is a versatile player. He can play at fullback, he can play up front and he can play in the midfield – he is an all-around player,” he added, noting Aquino is “tremendously explosive.”
“He is about 5’6” but he can get up there and win headers against guys that are 6’0”. He is a threat to score with his head.
“He is a spark plug and he plays with a lot of energy and a lot of passion, and I am really glad we got him.
At his age, Nicolas Dussault is “already really developed physically,” according to Kennedy.
“He is strong, he is fast and he is powerful. He is already capable of competing against big, strong center backs in our league. He actually likes doing it, so I am excited about him,” Kennedy said.
“Probably one of the strongest leaders I have seen for an 18-year-old; he has got a maturity about him, a self-awareness that’s just fantastic to be around.
“I am thrilled to get him – I think he is an absolute catch,” he added.
Kennedy described Mac Murray as “an all-around athlete,” who also played basketball and is one of the province’s top 400m runners.
“He has tremendous quickness and speed. I think he has a good future ahead of him in AUS soccer. We have got to refine his techniques, just a little bit, but I really like him,” he said.
Karel Mancal, an exchange student from the Czech Republic, is a 6’5” striker.
“He has a lot of game experience and we will discover a little bit more about him as we move along,” Kennedy said.
Former X-Man Martin Vlk recommended Mancal.
“Martin says he is a good player, and Martin knows a good player when he sees one, so I will take Martin on his word,” Kennedy said.
“From what I have seen, so far, he moves really well, especially for a big guy. Anytime you can add 6’5” to your team, especially when it can move, we will take it.
In talking about his returnees, Kennedy focussed on his fourth and fifth-year players.
He described forward Natneal Tecle as “dynamic.”
“He is, arguably, the most technical player on the team. He has just come off a tremendous year in the Nova Scotia Soccer League, where he was one of the top players,” Kennedy said, describing him as “the full package.”
“He is humble, he is a great leader and he is tremendously skilled. He has got some fire and I just love the kid.
“I can’t wait to have him close out his fifth year in the kind of style that he deserves. Hopefully, we will one for Nat,” he added.
Dylan Lawrence is back on the left side.
“He has tremendous attacking capabilities and provides phenomenal leadership,” Kennedy said.
Liam Elbourne returns to the midfield.
“He has been a steady starting 11 player the whole time that he has been here,” Kennedy said.
Ben Herringer is another veteran forward.
“He may be the best back-to-goal player in the league. You can pass anything to him, with pressure behind him, and he will hang on to the ball for you,” Kennedy said.
Midfielder Cole Suart provides a “tremendous defensive presence.”
“Anytime you can get your  MVP back, it is great,” Kennedy said of wingback Alex Taylor.
“When we did our fitness testing, our MVP came in and won all them; it is a great sign.”
Aaron Thibeau is also back at wingback.
“He has been a tremendous role player for us. He has gotten a lot of minutes and been very capable coming in, from the bench or in a starting position,” Kennedy said.
The veteran presence also touches the X-Men defense.
“Dustin Benetti has been a mainstay, since he arrived here – big, strong, quick and a natural leader,” Kennedy said.
“We are delighted to have him back and another guy who I really want to send out of here on a high note.”
Kennedy talked about the steady improvement of midfielder Marco Zanchetta.
“He could, probably, go into eight of the 10 teams in this league and be a starting central midfielder,” he said.
“I am not sure that he will be here but he will be close.”
As for the aforementioned veteran duo between the pipes [Lannan and Pieroway], Kennedy said “they have been, maybe, the best one-two punch in the league.
“Not maybe, they have been the best one,” he added.
On the verge
When asked about expectations, Kennedy said the X-Men are a team that is “just on the verge of winning.”
He talked about what he called “an anomaly in our league,” the Cape Breton Capers.
“They have 17 internationals on their team – all of whom come in with terrific experience. On average, per player, there are about two-and-a-half years older than us,” Kennedy added.
He noted “contending with that is difficult.”
“That being said, if there is anybody in our league who can give Cape Breton a game, it is us, and we have proven that, year after year,” Kennedy said.
Last season, the rivals clashed three times, with the Capers winning by one goal each team, including an overtime battle in the conference playoffs.
“For us, the key to winning in this league is beating Cape Breton and beating UNB – those are the two teams, right now, that we have to get past,” Kennedy said.
“I think that we have got a team here who can defend against Cape Breton. I think, when we put our best team on the pitch, it is not an easy game for them.
“If we can find a way to score – that’s always the key – then we can beat Cape Breton. That’s going to be the million dollar question – can we score?” he added.
Kennedy noted the X-Men have new offensive threats.
“I don’t want to go out on a limb and say that they are, definitely, going to tilt the table in our favour, but I do think that we are going to have a little more to come at Cape Breton with this year. I think we are a little more balanced than we were,” he said.
“Defensively, we are always going to be strong – this is a team that can defend. That’s going to be our bread and butter – our defending.
“I want us to be a team that goes into games with the idea that we are going to get a shutout and, if we score one goal, we win. That’s the mentality I want us to have.
“If we happen to score two or three, great, but I want this team to know that, if we get one goal, we are going to win,” Kennedy added.
The X-Men will start the regular season this weekend with a pair of games.
Saturday [Sept. 9], they will be on the road against the UPEI Panthers, while they will host the rival Saint Mary’s Huskies Sunday [Sept. 10].
Kickoff for the home opener, at Oland Stadium, is 3:15 p.m.