By: Monty Mosher
Like many of his teammates, Peter Schaale came to the Cape Breton Capers with little understanding of AUS soccer or his new community.
Both have changed his life.
Schaale came to Nova Scotia from Bernkastel-Kues, Germany after high school. His friend and high school teammate, Joel Eckert-Ayensa, had told him of his experiences there after his rookie season with the Capers.
The six-foot-three Schaale, a centre back, wanted to attend university to play varsity soccer and to further his education. He didn't see that as a strong possibility in his home country.
He ended up in contact with CBU coach Deano Morley, who was already on the way to building a national powerhouse fully stocked with international talent.
"I look back on it as probably the best decision I ever made in my life to come to Cape Breton," the 22-year-old Schaale said earlier this week as his team arrived in Vancouver in advance of this week's U Sports nationals.
Title defence starts Thursday
Now at the end of his third season with the Capers, Schaale is the 2018 AUS most valuable player on an undefeated Capers team. The reigning three-time AUS champions will attempt to defend their U Sports title beginning Thursday at UBC.
"It's been an amazing journey," Schaale said. "Our coach told us how amazing it is that our team got together again after a season like last year. We all started from the same point again as last year and put all the work and effort in. It takes a lot.
"I think it's amazing we are here (at nationals) again, that we are still unbeaten for 30 games now. There is nothing in our heads other than winning it again. Obviously, the other teams are good and it will be tough, but the only goal we have is to go out and win it again."
Cape Breton hasn't lost a regular-season or playoff game, a stretch of 28 wins and three draws, since the 2016 national championship tournament. After defeating Toronto in their opener, they lost to Alberta in the semifinal and Guelph for the bronze medal that year.
But they were perfect at the nationals a year ago with consecutive wins UQAM, Thompson Rivers and Montreal for U Sports honours. It was the first national title for the program.
Capers remain gold standard
Schaale said everything is harder the second time around. When they face UQAM in their quarter-final match on Thursday, everyone in the tournament will know the defending champs remain the gold standard in the country.
"A certain level is expected now and you expect it from yourself," said Schaale, a business student. "It's not coming from the coach or the university, we expect it as a team to go all the way and win it again. Everything else would be disappointing for us.
"Other teams go into games against us like it is a championship game. I think it's even harder to do it again."
CBU and UQAM will be joined in the tournament draw by York, Trinity Western, Montreal, Carleton, host UBC and UNB. The Capers defeated UNB 2-0 on Sunday for the AUS title, but both teams knew they were headed to nationals after winning their semifinals.
Schaale grew up in a household where soccer was king. His father played and was a huge fan of the game.
"In Germany, it's massive, probably like ice hockey in Canada. Every little boy starts playing soccer early and I spent my whole youth on the pitch."
It seems like a long time ago now that Schaale had to make his life-changing decision. His parents wanted him to go to school and he wanted to play soccer.
"In Germany it is hard to combine studying and football. You really have to get lucky to play at a decent level at a decent club and still have the university in the same city or close to you. So that was tough."
'I wouldn't change a single thing'
Eckert-Ayensa was pivotal in the story.
"He told me Deano was looking for a centre back," said Schaale. "At this point, I really didn't know what to do next. Then this came into mind and I ended up doing it because Deano really sold it very well to me and I ended up loving the idea of it. Now I love it here. It's just great. It's been a great journey and I wouldn't change a single thing."
The Capers are as international as can be with more than half of the roster from countries other than Canada. Schaale said the community becomes an incubator, with few distractions from school and athletics.
"We all come together at this little university on Cape Breton Island, where there isn't a lot going on other than football and university for us, and we all live together on campus," he said. "We do everything together. We study together. We go grocery shopping together. Everything we do, even in the off-season, we do together.
"This team is like a family to me. I see them more than my own family. The connection between the lads is very, very close and I think that's one of the main reasons why everything is working out so good for us now. We really have a team feeling and I think that's very important."
They might be from a small university in a small province, but the Capers enter the championship with abundant confidence.
"We know what we can do. We know we can easily match any team in this country. I think right now, in my opinion, we are the best team in the country if we play up to our standard," said Schaale, noting the core of the team will be back for 2019.
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter with more than 30 years covering university sport in the Atlantic provinces. He can be reached at email@example.com)