With regular season victories by scores of 8-0 (twice!), 9-2 and 6-1, it’s small wonder that the offensive weapons that arm the Cambrian Golden Shield women’s soccer team have received their fair share of exposure this season.
Yet to a person, those involved with the squad that is hosting the OCAA Provincials later this month understand that when the post season arrives, and the head to head matchups feature only the truly elite of Ontario collegiate soccer, team defense is likely to be a deciding factor.
It was part of the reason that coach Giuseppe Politi actively recruited the likes of former OUA defenders Gabby Conrad and Samantha Innocente, to help solidify the back end, much in the same manner that Ashley Melnek had done a few years earlier.
Still, there was a need to integrate the newcomers with a core group of talent, a group that would need to increase their level of play another notch if this team is to achieve the goals they have targeted. Few have taken this challenge more to heart than centerback stalwart Jenelle St Jean.
Currently 19 years of age – she will celebrate her 20th birthday on Sunday, at Humber for the final regular season game – and in her third year with the Shield, the graduate of Collège Notre Damehas embraced the move back from her role as a defensive midfielder to flanking Conrad as left centerback, allowing Innocente to thrive in her more comfortable position as a left fullback.
“At first, I was kind of nervous to play with these big players,” said St Jean. “They’re very smart on the ball and they know what they’re doing. But they always motivate me, so it’s been a lot of fun to play with them. I get to learn and experience a higher level of soccer.”
Truth be told, this long-time competitive soccer mainstay does not take enough credit for exactly what she brings to the mix. The eldest of two girls in the family, St Jean was born to play soccer. “I’ve always been into sports,” she said. “Even in elementary school, I was playing volleyball, basketball, soccer, all of those sorts of things.”
A tad trepidatious at her introduction to Timbits soccer at the age of four, St Jean would quickly grow into the game. “I had a team one year with all boys, I was the only girl, and that kind of motivated me to be better, to show the boys that I can play,” she said. Playing only her inaugural season of competitive soccer in her early teens as a striker, St Jean would find her comfort, in recent years, as a defensive midfielder.
“This is my first year being a centerback,” she noted. “Being a centerback, you have to see the whole field. You’re the one who talks to everyone.” Thankfully, she has always approached the sport blessed with an incredible desire to learn, and equally blessed in being surrounded by folks more than willing to share their knowledge of the beautiful game.
“I’ve had good coaches throughout my whole life, but with Dayna (Corelli) and Giuseppe, they’ve really, really helped me,” she said. “There will be one phrase that he says, or one technique that he shows you, and it’s completely better. It’s helped so much having them around, having people who really know what they’re doing.”
As in most sports, a keen IQ for the game itself can produce a wonderful leveling of the playing field, allowing schools dwarfed by the size of some top end contenders to go toe to toe with their more well-known rivals.
“We’re older now and we understand the expectations,” St Jean stated of her mates. “The whole team just fits the coaching style. We want to learn and we want to do better.” The journey has been a process. A heart-breaking 4-3 overtime loss to Algonquin in the OCAA semi-finals last fall did not deter the Cambrian crew from bouncing back and claiming bronze with a 1-0 win over Seneca.
The setback, however, is not long forgotten. “We always have to remember, in the back of our minds, that that game happened, and we don’t want it to happen again,” said St Jean. “That loss hurt us so much. We played well that whole tournament, our standards were raised.”
Already committed to completing all five years of her post-secondary eligibility, the second year Public Relations major did not always see this future ahead of her. “Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to play this far,” she said. “I always loved the game since I was little, but I didn’t think I was going to play college soccer. I thought I was going to stop, for career paths and stuff, maybe move out of town – but I just couldn’t let it go.”
“I just love the adrenaline,” St Jean continued. “There’s something about being out on the field that just makes you feel better.” Along with a solid handful of her Cambrian teammates, she would represent the Sudbury Impact, this past summer, competing in the OWSL (Ontario Women’s Soccer League) Provincial Elite Division.
“The teams we played this summer were unbelievable, girls going on full rides to the States,” said St Jean. “They were so good. It helped us a lot, made us realize that if we push harder, we can use the skills that we’ve learned back at college.”
And at the level the Golden Shield wish to ascend in just a few weeks time, those skills defending top end talent will prove every bit as critical as the skills needed to put the ball in the net, even if we don’t talk about them quite as much.