ANTIGONISH, N.S. — The St. F.X. X-Men soccer program will have a different look when they take the pitch in Atlantic University Sport (AUS) competition next season.
The White and Blue squad that captured a spot in the U Sports champion-ship tournament this campaign will say good-bye to several key players.
“We are not only losing talent, but also leadership,” X-Men head coach Graham Kennedy said during a recent post-season conversation.
One of the departing student athletes is midfielder Dan Hayfield — the 2017 national player of the year.
“You don’t replace a Dan Hayfield,” Kennedy noted.
He and countryman Tane Caubo, with 11 and nine goals apiece, finished first and third in the AUS regular-season scoring race.
“We are losing some really talented international players,” Kennedy said, referencing the duo from the United Kingdom.
He described their endings with the program as a “significant loss.”
Defender Sam Charron also will not return and Kennedy is “highly doubtful” William Warren will be back for a fifth season as he faces significant rehab following knee surgery.
As part of improving roster depth, Kennedy said the X-Men program is focused on bringing in a big, physical center forward, who can hold the ball and threaten from behind.
“That is at the top of our shopping list, but they are hard to come by,” he added.
After earning a playoff bye with a second-place finish in the AUS regular season, the X-Men dropped a 2-0 OT decision to the rival Cape Breton Capers in the conference championship match.
Nevertheless, the appearance in the final two secured the X-Men a spot at the U Sports championship tournament, the first nationals' appearance for the White and Blue since 1994.
“We have had teams, in previous years, who probably should have made nationals, but didn’t. “We weren’t as deep (this season) as were in other seasons,” Kennedy offered.
At nationals, the X-Men went score-less, dropping 2-0 decisions to the Carleton Ravens and UBC Thunderbirds.
“We competed well — we were competitive but we weren’t good enough to threaten someone. We didn’t have the depth required to seriously threaten at nationals,” Kennedy said.
Depth was a concern for the X bench boss heading into the regular season — particularly if the injury bug bit as it did just that.
“It was the smallest roster that I ever had with the X-Men,” Kennedy said.
He unpacked some of what strained that depth, including the late off-season decision by midfielder Ayoub Al Arabi not to return for his sophomore campaign.
“It didn’t materialize,” he also noted of a “top-end” recruit who was supposed to don the X-Men colours.
And, after an electrifying start, the senior season for Warren ended abruptly because of a torn MCL.
“That really hurt — it was a major loss,” Kennedy said.
Describing them as “challenges,” he reflected on the obstacles created by having a thin roster.
“It can breed complacency, which I think happened with us,” Kennedy said of when playing time is not threatened.
“We had players who we expected more from, but they didn’t deliver what they were capable of delivering.”
Considering the X-Men finished 9-2-1, Kennedy said it may sound odd, but he added “we could have been better.”
That’s one of the focuses heading into next season — eliminating the element of complacency by stockpiling roster depth.
When it comes to who played well this season, Kennedy said there were the “usual suspects,” including Hayfield and fourth-year defender Josh Read.
Both veterans were first-team AUS all-stars while Hayfield was named a first-team All-Canadian and Read garnered a second-team nod.
And there was Caubo, who followed up a couple injury-plagued seasons, with a strong senior one.
“It was really great to see Tane bounce back and deliver,” Kennedy said of the AUS first-team all-star.
Sophomore defender Jack Kennedy fashioned a “stellar season” that earned him an AUS second-team all-star spot.
“Jack really made his mark as a young defender,” the head coach said.
After getting off to a “fantastic start,” Kennedy noted junior midfielder Nick Aquino was felled by injury.
And, of course, the knee injury to Warren snuffed out an all-star calibre campaign.
Kennedy called the year from sophomore defender Lewis Dye “solid,” while describing him as “one of the pleasant surprises,” with his performance at nationals.
“He was excellent — really stepped up — and showed how well he could play at a high level,” Kennedy said.
Junior goalkeeper and Antigonish native Seamus MacDonald delivered what he labelled a “breakout season.”
‘Lot of positives’
“There were a lot of positives,” Kennedy said of the season, noting the nine-win season and spot in nationals.
But, he added, when looking at it with “an analytical and critical eye,” the X-Men could have played a “heckuva lot better.”
“We are really thankful for the support we get from our small, but mighty dedicated group of fans,” Kennedy said.
With that in mind, he said, the X-Men program is “looking forward to rebuilding without stumbling too far down the (AUS) table.”
Kennedy noted the goal is having a similar formula as the X-Women did this season, a team that finished undefeated with 13 new players on the roster.
“We are focused on keeping ourselves as a top-three AUS program and have an opportunity to return to the national stage,” he said.