Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Approachable, inclusive, hard-working, talented and culture-changing.
These are just some of the descriptions of the largest class of graduating seniors MacEwan has seen in four years – a group which will be feted after MacEwan's match vs. Manitoba (4-3-1) on Sunday (12 p.m., Clarke Stadium).
Goalkeeper Emily Burns, defenders Jamie Erickson and Sarah Riddle, and midfielders Suekiana Choucair and Kristyn Smart are heading into the final few games of their storied Canada West careers. And they'll all be remembered as foundational pieces for a program that, during their time, has climbed to the upper echelons of the conference.
MacEwan (4-1-2) will also host Winnipeg (1-7-0) on Saturday (12 p.m., Clarke Stadium, both games Canada West TV presented by Co-op) in their second-last home weekend of the Canada West regular season.
"I think all five of these individuals will leave a lasting legacy with this program for many years to come," said head coach Dean Cordeiro. "You'd be hard pressed to find a graduating group that had more of an impact on our program than these five. I think back to what we deemed the fab five with (2015 graduates) Erika Vecchio, Jennifer Lam, Sheena Tracey, Marlea Moroz and Hilary Niederhaus, but these five have been here all five years.
"That's our first class who've done that. These players have definitely left a mark and helped build our program to be one of the strongest in Canada West."
Burns, who enters the weekend second in Canada West goalkeeper statistics with a 0.29 GAA and .929 save percentage, has twice been a conference second team all-star in her university career (2016 and 2018).
"Emily Burns, she came in as a relatively unknown and, man did people find out about her quickly," said Cordeiro. "She rose to the stage in Year 1, becoming our starter and hasn't looked back ever since.
"That's a testament to her for how she conducts herself as a professional day in and day out and the level she's been exposed to – representing Canada (twice in Universiades), playing in the UWS and being dominant in all those stages. She's definitely changed the culture here in the goalkeeper world. Her continued excellence in goal is something that will be missed, for sure."
Burns, who plans to graduate in the spring with an Arts degree, majoring in English and minoring in French hopes to eventually become a lawyer. But she wants to play professionally first. Her legacy at MacEwan will long be remembered.
"I don't really know how other people view me or will view me, but I like to think I've had a decent role on this team," she said. "I've always tried to give my best and work hard and do whatever I can to make sure the team was successful."
Emily Burns has been one of the top goalkeepers in Canada West throughout her university career (Chris Piggott photo).
That's the underlying theme for all of the seniors and one that defender Jamie Erickson takes to heart as well. The reigning MacEwan female athlete of the year after receiving the institution's first-ever Canada West first team all-star award has a trophy case full of individual accolades. But she prefers to celebrate team success.
"I just hope I've been the best teammate I could be to everybody – just being there supporting them and being a good role model," said Erickson, who plans to graduate in the spring with a Science degree with future plans of going to medical school.
Added Cordeiro: "She's been an inspirational leader for this team. She does all the extra work in the gym. There's nobody who's done more than her. On the pitch, she'll do whatever it takes to win the game.
"You don't replace any of these girls, but we hope their legacy would have touched some of the girls in our program in the next generation to understand what it takes to help a team get to where they want to go. But also, as an individual, it depends how bad you want something. If you want something bad enough that individual and team success will come for you."
Jamie Erickson is a team-first player, despite a long list of individual accolades (Chris Piggott photo).
Riddle has been in and out of the starting lineup throughout her career, but is coming off her best season in 2018 where she started every game. Coming back from a knee injury last December, she has played sparingly so far in 2019, but she's also been all about helping the team in whatever way she can.
"Our first year, we were part of something special with Jenny, Erika, Sheena and Hilary," she explained. "They set an amazing culture with the team. That was probably the coolest year I've had with the team – just how tight knit we were. Everything we did was together as a team and we had so many team events.
"Coming from that year, it's taken us a while, but I think we've finally found what works with this group of girls we have and how important it is to not only be in sync with each other on the field but off the field – being able to talk about school and personal issues. Just having that open-door approach to it. It's not first year, second year, third year. We're here as one team and we work together."
Added Cordeiro: "She's been a 90-minute starter for us over the years. This year, she's been coming back from injury and her role's going to increase down the stretch. She's someone who's going to be instrumental in how we're going to end up and where we're going to go. It's having team players like Sarah who is all about the team. She celebrates the team success more than her own."
Sarah Riddle started every game for the Griffins last season and is working her way back into the lineup after an injury last December (Chris Piggott photo).
Choucair had the rare journey of starting since she came in as a rookie in 2015 when she truly took the torch from Lam and Vecchio in MacEwan's midfield.
"I would say that's how it worked out," said Choucair, who aims to graduate in the spring with a Science degree, majoring in psych and minoring in chemistry. "Jenny was my sister on the team and then I roomed with Erika, so I had both of them as my mentors. That was really good. Once they graduated, then I was the midfielder left, so I had to take some of their role, which was hard because they're amazing players.
"Now as I leave, it will definitely be passed on and it has been passed on to the current midfielders. The younger ones coming in, I would hope that they would have the same feeling as I had."
Choucair, who was named to the Canada West second all-star team last season and has also represented Canada at the Summer Universiade, has been such a crucial player for the Griffins over the years.
"Suek's been somebody who's been clutch for us," said Cordeiro. "She's leading our team in points again this season. At any given time, she can change a match with her high soccer IQ. She's been instrumental in what we've done and she's going to be a big loss to the program. She's another player we can't thank enough for her growth as a player but also as a person."
Suekiana Choucair took the torch in MacEwan's midfield from Jennifer Lam and Erika Vecchio in 2015 and will pass it on after this season (Chris Piggott photo).
Smart was feted during a post-game ceremony following MacEwan's final regular season home game last season after returning late in the campaign from an injury. But she still had remaining eligibility due to a pair of lost seasons and she decided it wasn't how she wanted to go out.
"I think this year has been really big for me," said Smart, who will graduate at the end of this semester with a Science degree and hopes to study occupational therapy in the future. "I was kind of hesitant at the beginning of the season. Should I be coming back? I don't want to be stepping toes of girls coming in now, too, but I think the team that we have, the girls are just awesome. It's been a great experience so far halfway through the season."
Cordeiro is happy that Smart is getting to finish her university career in the right way.
"She's just too talented an individual and too much of a team player to want to see her career end that way," he said. "She decided to come back, which we're forever grateful for. She's been a 90-minute staple at holding mid – the Smarty of old, if you will, because she missed a couple of years due to injuries."
Kristyn Smart decided to return for one final season in 2019 and it has been rewarding (Chris Piggott photo).
Burns, Erickson, Riddle, Choucair and Smart have defined what it means to be a Griffins women's soccer player.
"They're what we're about: excellence in the classroom, excellence in the community," said Cordeiro. "These five individuals have meant so much to this program. The growth and where we are today is hugely because of these girls and the impact they've had with the program and the legacy they'll leave.
"It's the reason year-in and year-out, the majority of the kids who play in environments that these girls have also been involved in want to follow suit and be a Griffin because they saw the success these players have and want to be a part of it."