Ones to watch: Football and soccer are back, baby

We’re heading into September, which can only mean one thing in the sports world on campus: varsity season is starting. Our Thunderbird teams are back and ready for action, starting this weekend with the football and soccer teams. Here are a few names you should be looking out for as their seasons progress:

Football

It’s been three years since UBC’s last Vanier Cup win — maybe this is finally the season to reclaim the title. With what head coach Blake Nill has called “one of the best groups in the country,” the ’Birds have solidified their roster with some big recruits this year. But, it’s also the veterans that make UBC a top competitor for the trophy:

Offense:

Michael O’Connor (Quarterback: #15)

A total of 2,308 yards passing, 67.5 per cent accuracy and 14 touchdowns in 8 games — those were Michael O’Connor’s impressive stats last regular season. Now in his fourth year at UBC, the signal caller has a lot riding on this season. Aside from his statistical success, he’s an experienced leader guiding a team that’s expected to bring home hardware in 2018. At 6’5” and 225 pounds, his physical attributes allow him to show great poise and awareness in the pocket — a key piece to his strong passing game. Speaking to his ability in an interview with Sportsnet, Nill said, “He’s going to attract interest from both sides of the border for sure, you’re talking about a player who has all the physical tools, the genetics and intellectual ability.”

Trivel Pinto (Wide receiver: #1)

A solid wide receiver/quarterback relationship is integral to any functioning offense in football. Fourth-year veteran Trivel Pinto knows a thing or two about that: he posted 717 yards in seven games last season, surpassing the 100 yards/game mark. More impressive is his reception total — he hauled in 53 catches last season, ranking him first in Canada West. Adding to his versatility as a player, Pinto also returns kicks, punts and is able to run a variety of plays for the ’Birds. He’s a fantastic route-runner with steady hands and electric feet, making him UBC’s number one option on offense — blink and you’ll miss him.

Pinto is an essential piece of UBC's offense.
Pinto is an essential piece of UBC's offense. File Saman Shariati

Ben Cummings (Running back: #4)

Here’s the fourth-year running back to complete UBC’s “Big Three” on offense. A receiver out of high school, Ben Cummings transitioned to running back at UBC. His head-down, between-the-tackle running style gashed multiple teams last season, including 179 yards on 19 carries (9.4 yds per carry) performance versus Saskatchewan. Because of the ’Birds talented receivers, Cummings doesn’t boast outstanding numbers but is solid nonetheless. His excellent pass protection and blitz pickups play a big role in O’Conner’s ability to flourish as a quarterback. Mark my words: #4 is going to have a big season.

Defense:

Elliot Graham (Linebacker: #90)

Graham was second on the team in total tackles with 36.5 last year, trailing all-Canadian defensive back Will Maxwell, who picked up 39. He had three tackles for loss, one forced fumble and five pass breakups too. And he holds an impressive Thunderbird record: a 107-yard interception for a touchdown. Impressed? Let me add that he did all that as a rookie. The second-year should be fun to watch this year as he combines forceful power with elite athleticism — a winning combo for any linebacker.

Charles Nwoye (Defensive end: #92)

Charles Nwoye is UBC football’s version of the Hulk. He recently smashed 400 pounds on the bench press — a true testament to his size and strength. But there’s more to Charles than what meets the eye. Prior to 2015, he never padded up. In fact, Nill had to fly to Alberta to convince him to play football. In just a few years he’s become an animal along the D-line, and although his stats aren’t eye-popping, it’s mostly because he grinds out the dirty work like closing running lanes and taking double teams. Now a senior player, his role on the team has grown; he’d be able to help UBC bring back the Vanier Cup they won in his rookie year. Any personal achievements on top of that are just “icing on the cake” for him.

Stavros Katsantonis (Safety: #18)

The 2017 Canada West defensive player of the year is returning for his fourth season at UBC. A notorious hard-hitting tackler, Stavros Katsantonis has a knack for big games: he had two forced fumbles versus Calgary last season and picked Manitoba quarterback Des Catalier three times too. He’s a mainstay that glues UBC’s defense together and his leadership qualities are evident every game you watch. His experience and talent in the secondary were a big part of why UBC were Canada West’s best defense last season. His other accolades include best defensive player of the 2015 Vanier Cup, Canada West All-Star (2016/17) and U Sports First Team All-Canadian (2016). Yeah, he’s good.

Men’s Soccer

It’s a fresh season for the coveted UBC men’s soccer team, and there’s no doubt they are in it to win it after a tough fourth-place finish at nationals last fall. With high expectations set for this year’s roster and the national tournament to be held here at UBC in November, it’s high time UBC’s campus stood behind their T-Birds. Here a few names to watch out for as the men hunt down the national title:

Victory Shumbusho (Forward: #7)

A product of the Whitecaps Residency system, Victory Shumbusho makes the T-Birds an exciting team to watch. A combination of blistering pace, dazzling skill and intuitive vision had him tie for third in Canada West last season, scoring seven goals in as many matches. Even better, he’s only in his second year of eligibility, allowing him to further mature and perfect his technique under well respected head coach Mike Mosher’s guidance.

Zach Verhoven (Forward: #8)

I remember watching a match last season when I heard a scout in the press box remark how underrated Zach Verhoven was in league play — it’s true. Although not as flashy as some of his teammates, Verhoven possesses the ability to change the momentum of a game. He runs up and down the wings with conviction, wins challenges and makes key passes for the Thunderbirds. Verhoven was also a game-changer coming off the bench, changing the pace of the match in favour of the Thunderbirds no matter how much time he got to play. He’s also not afraid to take a crack at net; last season he notched 42 shots overall — good for fourth in Canada West play. Now in his third year of eligibility, he’ll be looking to further develop chemistry with UBC’s other forwards including Kyle Sohi and Kristian Yli-Hietanen.

Verhoven is a dynamic member of theT-Birds roster.
Verhoven is a dynamic member of theT-Birds roster. File Patrick Gillin

Daniel Kaiser (Defense: #2)

Rookie alert! Another product of the Whitecaps Residency, Kaiser will look to tighten up UBC’s back line. Originally from Calgary, he joined the Whitecaps Residency program where he became a highly sought after player. He’s a self-described ‘ball-carrying’ defender, meaning it’s likely some playmaking duties will be bestowed on him this year. It’s not yet confirmed whether he’ll start, but Mosher “really likes his character and soccer intelligence.” Either way, he’s sure to earn some playing time and is definitely a player to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Women’s Soccer

Emily Moore (Goalkeeper: #1)

Now in her third year, Emily Moore has finally got the starting gig at goalkeeper. At 6 feet tall, she boasts plenty of height and length between the sticks, allowing defenders to feel confident in the case of any slip-ups. A fun fact: in her nine career starts at UBC, she’s undefeated — posting a 6-0-3 record. If the ’Birds have any chance of bringing silverware home this season, they’re going to need a strong campaign from Moore.

Michelle Jang (Forward: #13)

After netting three goals this preseason, Michelle Jang is starting to generate some hype. The striker showed her ability to come up in the latter minutes of games, scoring in the 55th and 82nd minutes. Jang will look to fight for minutes in a crowded UBC forward group, but if the preseason is any indication, she is in for a promising year.

Melissa Bustos (Midfielder: #9)

Hailing from Manitoba and in her first year of eligibility, Melissa Bustos brings a technical style of play to the T-Birds midfield. She’s a gifted passer and is not afraid to dribble — a punishing combo to any opponent’s backlines. After being sidelined for a year due to injury, Bustos is ready to show her talented and dynamic repertoire to opponents and fans alike.