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The backbone of Blues soccer’s backline

Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan dressed a combined 153 times for the Blues over five years. MARTIN BAZYL/COURTESY OF THE VARSITY BLUES

The backbone of Blues soccer’s backline

Blues defenders Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan reflect on their varsity careers

It’s exactly 9:00 am on an overcast March morning when Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan walk into the room, coffees in hand. Outside, the clouds have dyed the sky a silver-grey hue that streams delicately into the room, creating a pensive aura befitting the occasion. The two Varsity Blues stars sit, ready to reflect on their storied soccer journeys.

Krkachovski wears a maroon hoodie with a slightly faded Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) logo plastered across it; Mulligan wears a light top. The two are fifth-year Blues athletes — two-year co-captains of the women’s soccer team who have dressed 153 times combined — and, as Krkachovski says, “Obviously we’re best friends off the field.”

In October, the pair received a frame commemorating their contributions, before they faced a tough 1–0 Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoff defeat that called time on their exceptional Blues careers.

Formative years

Krkachovski and Mulligan, lifelong defenders, faced very different journeys en route to becoming the beating heart of the Blues defense.

Out of high school in Markham, Krkachovski was being courted by both U of T and McMaster’s soccer programs and made her decision with a primary focus on athletics.

Mulligan, on the other hand, “lived really close to UBC” and sought pastures new. “I also really liked the academic programs that U of T has so that was a big draw for me and it worked out as well that I could play soccer.”

It would be Mulligan who would break into the starting lineup in 2013, impressing with two goals: one a headed effort and the other a 40-yard belter, both of which she describes as “flukey.”

Their rookie campaign ended with a fifth-place finish in the CIS Championship, with Mulligan playing all but eight minutes of action in the three CIS games; Krkachovski made the bench for the last of the three games.

In a reversal of fortunes, Krkachovski thrived in second year while Mulligan played just five times before sustaining a season-long injury. Unfortunately, Krkachovski’s breakout season would end in defeat at the OUA quarter final stage.

Heart of the defense

With Krkachovski having shone in 2014 and Mulligan returning from an injury layoff eager to recapture her rookie form, the Blues had a promising new defensive partnership — and blossoming friendship — heading into 2015.

“Every morning before game day we’d meet for a coffee… enjoy it, then go to the game,” says Krkachovski. It’s pleasing, then, to see that even five months after the season’s finale, they’re still enjoying a morning coffee together.

“We like to make a lot of jokes when we’re playing,” says Mulligan. “Often our teammates will look back and we’re laughing.” Mulligan adds that the easygoing chatter cements a strong understanding on the pitch between one another, and Krkachovski agrees.

“She knows when she’s losing me… she’ll be like, ‘Come on, I’m losing you and you’re not talking anymore.’ She definitely keeps me going when I need that,” says Krkachovski.

Krkachovski takes a brief pause before continuing her thought. It’s the kind of pause that just might, in other circumstances and between any other pairing, constitute an awkward break, but sitting next to Mulligan, it’s a comfortable, shared silence.

“Say we mess up and you look up and the whole team is looking back at you. You could read the disappointment on [their] face, but then I have her beside me or she has me to be like, ‘Okay, it’s fine. We’re still okay, everything is going to be fine,’” says Krkachovski. “That went a long way.”

Still, as co-captains, the two maintained an open channel of communication with the rest of the team, and they would stand up for their squad without hesitation.

“She can be harder on people, and I can be the nicer person sometimes. We just balance each other out,” says Mulligan.

“Mull’s more of the ‘motherly supportive’ type,” says Krkachovski with a smirk. “Put that direct quote in there.”

Their complementary technical skills also solidified their leadership and status as strong role models.

Krkachovski’s main strengths are her passing accuracy and vision, while Mulligan’s lie in her aerial presence and long ball abilities — think of Krkachovski as the ball-playing foil to Mulligan’s limited defender role. Mulligan is comfortable holding back and sweeping to accommodate Krkachovski, whom she jokingly describes as “a striker at heart.”

In 2015, the two dressed for all 17 games, with Krkachovski starting every one. She would also score her first goal for the Blues that season. She considers this fact for a moment and looks at Mulligan for confirmation.

“Is that where you shot it almost straight in the air?” offers Mulligan, sparking Krkachovski’s recollection.

“It was for sure going to Bloor Street,” says Krkachovski.

“She was probably five yards away from the net.”

“And I cranked it.”

“Straight up.”

“And yeah it went bar down. It was pretty good,” says Krkachovski, satisfied with the back-and-forth recount of the two-and-a-half-year-old landmark. The pair’s Blues careers are so closely intertwined that this becomes a common occurrence as they piece together memories.

Krkachovski would end 2015 with an OUA East second team all-star honour. “By the end of third year I was really starting to get confident, know my role,” she says. “And then fourth year I just went balls to the wall.”

In their fourth year, 2016, the two started 14 games together, and Krkachovski was again rewarded for her balls-to-the-wall efforts with an OUA East second team all-star honour. However, despite her and Mulligan’s best efforts, the team would fall at the OUA playoff stage for the second year in a row.

Disappointment and development

The next question floats in the air for a few seconds, eliciting a longer pause from Krkachovski and Mulligan. “What’s the biggest life lesson the two of you have taken out, being part of the Varsity Blues program?” Krkachovski then submits an affirmative response that elicits Mulligan’s agreement.

“No matter how much hard work you put into something, it’s not always going to go your way.

“The amount of effort her and I put in at least the past three years straight… and then we still end up in sixth place. We still end up with only five clean sheets.”

“You still have to work hard on everything you want to do well in your life,” adds Mulligan. “But hard work doesn’t equal success, it just equals a better chance of success, I guess.”

Despite their unrelenting dedication, their team has been dumped out at the playoff stage of the OUA for the last three seasons. In 2015, they finished fourth in their OUA regular season conference standings with four clean sheets. In 2016 and 2017, they finished sixth, with five clean sheets each year.

Soccer is a game of such fine margins that a small slip-up at any point could be costly. Especially as defenders, Krkachovski and Mulligan are acutely aware of this. “It’s not a glamorous role,” says Mulligan.

While clean sheets are never truly a barometer of defensive success, the disappointing truth is that the team never made it back to the CIS Championship — or U SPORTS, as it was rebranded in 2016 — level after their first-year adventure, where they qualified as the hosts.

Though nice, Krkachovski’s CIS hoodie bears an uncomfortable weight as a reminder of a tournament that the Blues have not progressed to in four years — a stage that she and Mulligan undoubtedly deserve to have played more on.

But despite the Blues’ shortcomings on the pitch, Krkachovski and Mulligan’s everyday successes for Toronto as leaders, teammates, and friends are insurmountable. “We’re all really good friends with the rest of our team,” says Mulligan. “All my best friends pretty much are from soccer.”

While it may be cheesy to say, it’s these experiences that truly define success.

SEYRAN MAMMADOV/Courtesy of THE VARSITY BLUES

So it goes

Krkachovski offers her own cheesy pearl of wisdom to her previous point: “I know this one’s super cheesy, but just to actually enjoy it. You get so caught up… and all of a sudden we’re like, ‘It’s our grad game. Now what?’”

That’s a question she’s had to contend with after the end of the season. Over the past five years, she’s relied on soccer to give her a release from stress. As someone who obsessed over the team’s standing and performance for five years, the stark contrast of a final season is a bittersweet and jarring reminder to her — and all graduating Blues athletes — that nothing lasts forever. But with all she’s achieved over five years, Krkachovski is bound to overcome this challenge with ease.

Mulligan faced somewhat similar circumstances in 2016 as she approached the end of her four-year undergraduate degree, before she earned “a bonus year” upon being accepted for her master’s in Nutritional Sciences in 2017. “I’m enjoying the extra spare time, but I think it’ll be really weird in August when everyone’s back to playing and we’re watching from the stands,” she adds.

The Blues’ Krkachovski and Mulligan era may have ended, but the two clearly won’t be forgetting about their team anytime soon. While the March clouds outside still drain the blue from the sky, not even the changing seasons can drain the Blues from Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan.

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