Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – From sidelines to headlines, Zach Rochat's resurgence last season was remarkable.
Last suiting up in NCAA Div. II action for the University of Texas-Tyler in 2016 before an injury forced him to finish out the campaign as a medical redshirt, the St. Albert product didn't play again until starring for the MacEwan Griffins in 2018.
In fact, he was such an important piece for a young Griffins team that he was named Team MVP.
"He's the not the first who's been in a similar situation in the program, but it's refreshing as a staff and as a program that a guy can come back after sitting out a year and thrive the way he has," said head coach Adam Loga.
Rochat, who remains one of the Griffins' most important players in 2019, says embracing playing the centre back position for the team – a change from his usual fullback spot – made all the difference.
"Adam asked me if I wanted to play centre back," he said. "I'd been out of the game for two years, so I'm going to take any opportunity I can get.
"Just every game I improved and wanted to push myself to be better and maintain a starting 11 spot. As the season went on, I started noticing I could play this position and was doing well at it. The MVP thing, I didn't think too much of it. I was just focused on the team results."
Rochat will lead the Griffins into a key home-and-home series against cross-town rival Alberta this weekend (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Clarke Stadium and Sunday, 2:15 p.m., Foote Field – all games Canada West TV presented by Co-op).
It wasn't long ago, he was injured and on the sidelines at the University of Texas-Tyler. Rochat quickly became homesick.
"Just for my mental health aspect – being away from family and friends – I just decided it was best to come home," he said. "Being out of the game, the injury didn't do me very well."
Loga, who also played in the U.S. during his university career, was able to relate to what Rochat was going through.
"He wanted to transfer, so he had a lot of interest, of course, because he's a great player," said the Griffins head coach. "Just the level of empathy and understanding what he was going through down south – he had some bumps along the way that we were able to work through before even being his coach. That kind of connection, I think, brought him here.
"Then he needed to step away. When we brought him in, he missed that season. Then he called me that next summer wanting to come back."
Rochat had been coaching a St. Albert U15 boys team, giving back to the association he'd played with since age 3. Coaching remains a passion for the future elementary education teacher and those traits show on the field.
"He's a leader back there and he really distributes across the pitch," said Loga. "Guys look up to him and count on him.
"He reads the game well. He has a high IQ. I think his experience down south really plays a part as well. Just seeing the game through a different lens – he just brings a maturity to the group. He just distributes very well and his level of compete is very high. It's contagious throughout the group."
It's a group that has a huge task at hand this weekend. The 1-6-2 Griffins sit five points behind the 3-5-1 Golden Bears for the final playoff spot in the Prairie Division. With six points on the line in their series, you don't need to be a math major to understand the importance of this year's Battle of Edmonton.
"We're just trying to match up the best we can and just focus on how we can beat them," said Rochat.
At least they've remained positive through a trying season that has included five one-goal losses.
"I think the key thing is knowing we're in every game," said Rochat. " We're not getting the results and maybe luck isn't going our way, but we still have that chance of making playoffs and we'll never give up."
That's the culture that Loga is building long-term at MacEwan.
"It means a lot, of course, that they're enjoying it even though the results haven't been going our way," he said. "It just shows the culture we're trying to develop here. He's a big part of that. So are the guys. It's not just the staff. It's the boys in that room who are creating a great environment for the group."