FRIEND­SHIP FORGED

The game of soc­cer united Sam Smi­ley and Na­cho Sanchez and cre­ated a part­ner­ship that con­tin­ues to grow with UPEI Pan­thers

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY JA­SON MAL­LOY

Soc­cer brought Sam Smi­ley and Na­cho Sanchez to­gether.

That friend­ship, quickly forged as young­sters, con­tin­ued to grow, along with their skills.

They com­pete against each other and were team­mates as teenagers and now they are main­stays and lead­ers for the UPEI Pan­thers.

“Soc­cer has pretty well taken us ev­ery­where to­gether,” Sanchez said.

“It’s nice to go through soc­cer your whole life with one of your best buds,” added Smi­ley.

How­ever, they didn’t play club ball to­gether as kids and didn’t go to the same schools.

Sanchez, a 22-year-old Corn­wall res­i­dent, was an East Wilt­shire and Blue­field stu­dent while Smi­ley, a 22-year-old from Strat­ford, was a Stonepark and Char­lot­te­town Ru­ral grad.

“We were never in the same school, but we saw each other when we trained, just me and him, it would be ev­ery day,” Sanchez said. “(Soc­cer), for sure, brought us to­gether.”

The two be­gan play­ing to­gether as 11-year-olds on a pro­vin­cial team and con­tin­ued to push each other to im­prove. They are both soc­cer afi­ciona­dos; they are stu­dents of the game, watch it, play it and talk about it – a lot. The ex­pe­ri­ence the two have play­ing to­gether helps on the pitch.

“It’s pretty tele­pathic al­most be­tween us,” said Sanchez, a mid­fielder. “Play­ing with Sam so much, I know what kind of run he’s go­ing to make. I know I can trust him. If I play a cer­tain ball, I know he’s go­ing to get there.”

And while the two are close, they are any­thing but an is­land on the team.

“We have a great core group of about eight or nine guys that have all sort of come through at the same time to­gether,” head coach Lewis Page said. “Sam and Na­cho are a bit spe­cial be­cause they’ve come on the jour­ney to­gether. Their soc­cer lives have been in­ter­twined for a long time.”

Page said one of the great things about the job is watch­ing

the young play­ers, like Sanchez and Smi­ley, grow, ma­ture and be­come lead­ers.

Like most univer­sity teams, crack­ing the men’s Pan­thers lineup is hard to do as a rookie or a sec­ond-year player.

“It can be a re­ally hum­bling process,” Page said. “Great play­ers like these two, they learn from it and they grow and that’s how they be­come great play­ers in this league. . .

“It’s a tes­ta­ment to the char­ac­ter of these two that they took on that chal­lenge and they grew as play­ers and that’s why they’re the lead­ers they are.”

Sanchez and Smi­ley said they had great veter­ans like Cole MacMil­lan to learn from in their first

year as Pan­thers. They joined the Soc­cer­stop P.E.I. F.C. club team the fol­low­ing sum­mer and con­tin­ued to grow while play­ing with the for­mer Pan­thers and At­lantic Univer­sity Sport stars.

They were in Scot­land when the Pan­thers won bronze at the 2014 na­tion­als on their home turf.

“It’s great for us be­cause you see the op­por­tu­nity that we have and most of us are Is­land guys,” said Sanchez. “We know we have the tal­ent to com­pete this year and we’re am­bi­tious.”

The Pan­thers started the sea­son with back-to-back score­less draws in St. John’s, N.L., against the Me­mo­rial Sea-Hawks.

They host the Mount Al­li­son Moun­ties to­day at 7:15 p.m. in

their home opener.

“We said at the end of the two games (in St. John’s), it was al­most a good thing we were so dis­ap­pointed be­cause we know how good we can be,” said Smi­ley, whose fa­ther, Glenn, starred at UPEI and played pro­fes­sion­ally with the Ed­mon­ton Drillers of the North Amer­i­can Soc­cer League. “It’s not that we played ter­ri­ble, we just couldn’t get the re­sults we wanted.”

Page said play­ing in front of the home crowd on a Fri­day night is al­ways spe­cial. Then they have the de­fend­ing na­tional champs, the Cape Bre­ton Ca­pers, com­ing in Sun­day. He said the mes­sage to his play­ers is to take care of busi­ness Fri­day night.

“Mount A is al­ways a tricky game be­cause if you un­der­es­ti­mate them they can come and take points off you,” he said.

Cen­tre back Co­hen Red­dick­Stevens is ques­tion­able for tonight’s game with a groin in­jury sus­tained in the first game of the sea­son. Liam Do­iron and Austin McKen­zie both re­turn to the lineup this week­end from in­juries.

The Pan­thers are look­ing to use its home field to their ad­van­tage.

“We talk about Me­mo­rial be­ing a tough place to play, (but) no­body likes com­ing to UPEI,” Page said. “When our fans are be­hind us, it’s a dif­fi­cult place to come and get points and we love that.”

JA­SON MAL­LOY/THE GUARDIAN

Na­cho Sanchez, left, and Sam Smi­ley are two of the vet­eran lead­ers for the UPEI Pan­thers men’s soc­cer team.

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