Bill Merriman hit the recruiting trails hard this year with a large number of players from last year's Vancouver Island University Mariners national silver medal team moving on.
He brought in players from England, Norway and even Brazil. But, perhaps, one of his most important recruits was unearthed in his recruiting back yard.
Keegan Lang starred for the last few years with the Dover Bay Dolphins boy's soccer teams, including earning the golden boot at provincials last year after scoring nine goals at the B.C. Schools championships.
Merriman had high hopes for the 18-year-old freshman, but he is already surpassing those expectations. On Tuesday in Ladysmith, Lang led the Mariners with three goals in their 5-0 win in exhibition play over Trinity Lutheran University out of Everett, Wash. VIU also got single markers from Renan Rebelatto and Mateo Kostering.
"I didn't expect him to be quite where he is, he's even higher than I thought," said Merriman. "He's learning a lot from the other players and he learns so much from the other players. Its great to see that."
Merriman is going to have to learn to stop being surprised by his young player.
He got an early taste of what he was capable of while coaching him on the Mid Isle Highlanders U-21 Pacific Coast Soccer League reserve team, and he was a key cog there.
One of his greatest assets is his versatility. He can play just about any position on the field, and already has for Merriman with the Highlanders.
With VIU, however, he has been trying Lang out at striker and midfielder to see where he fits best.
On Monday, he was playing midfield, and it's hard to argue with the results.
"I wanted to try him in that position and see how it went and it was much better for him because wasn't marked up as tight and gave him more room," said Merriman.
"It was good to see him play there, it's a lot harder for the other team to handle."
Lang did have other options outside of VIU, but wanted to stay close to home, at least for the first couple of years of his education. He is in the engineering program at VIU.
Lang says he worked hard through the summer to prepare for the Pacific Western Athletic Association season, going to a hockey-based off-ice training program through J.R. Sports Performance and using the Highlanders as a way to prepare for bigger, older players.
"It is a big step, but it's just working hard and keeping up the pace in stepping into it with these guys, hopefully I'll play at the same level they do," said the five-foot-10, 175-pounder.
He is very committed to his education and career, though which path in engineering he will pursue he is not yet sure, but he also says he would not pass up the opportunity to take a shot at Europe one day, as several former Mariners and Highlanders have done.
"It would definitely be on the bucket list," said Lang. "It would be a lot of fun to continuw soccer throughout life."
Merriman has cautiously used the word "rebuild" in camp this year. It's tough not to when he lost most of his back line and a good portion of his midfield after last season when they lost in a shootout to Humber College in the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association championships.
While he has brought in players from all over the world - Farhad Abdulgani from Norway, David Durrant from England, Rebelatto from Brazil, and Youssef Ahmed and Yilmaz Tuncil from Israel - He Says It Is Critical He Has Local Talent Like Lang Coming Through The Pipeline.
"The more players we can get locally, the better," said Merriman. "It's nice to see them play at home and it also shows our level of play is good."
He also says there likely are more coming out of the Dolphins program that has developed into one of the best on Vancouver Island.
Up next for VIU is an exhibition game tonight against the U-21 Highlanders reserves also at Ladysmith Turf Fields at 6 p.m. The VIU women, meanwhile, host the TSS Academy on Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Merle Logan Field in Nanaimo.
Merriman says he is happy with the progression of the team so far.
"I like the energy they're bringing," he said. "I knew they were young, so there were going to be some mistakes made, but they're coming closer together and working for each other."
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