Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Feted during a traditional post-game ceremony following MacEwan's final home soccer game of the 2018 Canada West season, graduating senior Kristyn Smart high-fived teammates, hugged friends and rode off into the sunset.
It wasn't long after the season ended, though, that she realized she wanted to come back.
"The option was always open for me," she explained. "I think I really realized at my exit meeting I wanted to come back. I just didn't have the full season that I was anticipating, and it was not the way I wanted to leave the program. I knew we had a very good recruiting class and a great fifth-year class, so it was an opportunity to take advantage of my position with my injuries and extra years of eligibility to come back."
Although the talented holding midfielder has been with the Griffins for five seasons already – harkening back to their first season in Canada West in 2014 – Smart lost two seasons of eligibility to torn ACLs. Therefore, she's still eligible to play university soccer and enters the 2019 season as a fourth-year.
Smart, who plans to graduate with a Science degree in December, will lead the Griffins into their home-opening weekend against Mount Royal University on Saturday (12 p.m., Clareview Field) and vs. Lethbridge on Sunday (12 p.m., Clarke Stadium).
"Everything happens for a reason," said head coach Dean Cordeiro. "There's nobody that's more committed to the cause than Kristyn Smart. Obviously, she sustained two serious injuries during her time here and it impacted a couple years of eligibility. But she didn't want that to be the determining factor of her career.
"She made it back Thanksgiving weekend of last year and she played a role for us the rest of the way, but probably not as big a role as she would have liked to being the calibre of player that she is."
Indeed, Smart was not running at 100 per cent when she played sparingly in the Griffins final few games of the season. That certainly isn't typical of a player which rarely comes off the field when healthy.
"It's hard to get back into things when the season's already started and you're hopeful (of contributing)," she said. "Even to just break into the lineup is difficult halfway through the season when you've got a core group established. I feel a lot better this year. I've trained all winter and summer. I feel ready to go this season, so I'm looking forward to it."
Through coaching her in the off-season with club team Northwest United and in the preseason with the Griffins, Cordeiro has noticed his captain return to the top form that made her the premier recruit out of the 1996-born class.
"It's been a great decision. I've been impressed with her preseason," he said. "She's just on the rise. The way she dominated when we beat NCAA Div. 1 University of Montana on their home pitch – Kristyn played a 90-minute game and was just masterful in midfield. She shut down the opposing team's best player, won everything in the air, built up play, stuck tackles and was just brilliant.
"Myself and my staff looked at each other and said 'Krys is back.' That's vintage Smarty and it's really going to help kickstart our season for our captain to be back in full form. We're excited she decided to come back."
The Griffins enter the season as a contender for the Canada West championship after finishing with a program best 9-3-2 record last season. They enter with the most veteran group they've had in Canada West – four fifth-year seniors and five fourth-years – bolstered with arguably their strongest recruiting classes since entering Canada West. The Griffins are back in the Prairie Division after a two-year rotation in the Pacific.
"When you've come as close as we've had over the last three years – we've had two Final Four appearances, just a game away from nationals – all of these lessons we've learned over the years have really battle tested us and really set us up to take that next step," said Cordeiro. "It's not going to be easy. In my opinion, our conference is the best in Canada. There's a lot of top universities and programs.
"I think more than ever, there's more of a target on our backs, as well, because we're not catching anybody by surprise like we did in Years 1 and 2. For us, we don't look at it as any kind of pressure, we look at it as excitement. We're excited to get going. We know the work we've put in, how prepared we are. Our attention to detail's been on point. We'll see where it takes us."