It took two draws from two games on week two of the season for Angelo Cavalluzzo to realize that he had something special on his hands.

At first glance, the fact that the Varsity Blues women’s soccer team earned two points out of a possible six hardly seems worthy of excitement. Added to their return of three points from their first two games of the season the week prior, one would be forgiven for mulling over how Cavalluzzo, the associate head coach, could judge one win in four as evidence that something special was brewing. In fact, if you were to crunch the numbers, you would find that the team’s five-point haul from the opening four games was actually their worst start to a season since 2013.

Crunch the numbers a little further, however, and you’d realize that these two points are an exceptional exception to the norm. The draws, both at home, came against reigning national champions the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and the powerhouse Queen’s University Gaels on September 7 and 8, respectively. Before that, the Blues had lost their previous four games against the Gee-Gees, with an aggregate score of 7–1. Their record against the Gaels was even worse, having lost all of their previous eight encounters, dating back to 2015 — including one in the week prior — with an aggregate 23–5 score.

Facing off against the Gee-Gees, the Blues conceded first, and all signs seemed to point to an impending implosion. However, Cavalluzzo made tactical tweaks that were instrumental in helping midfielder Miranda Badovinac to score the equalizer just eight minutes later. Aided by a superb performance from goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis, the Blues saw the game through to a 1–1 draw.

Against the Gaels the following day, the Blues conceded first once more. And then they conceded again. No problem for Cavalluzzo and his Blues team though, who clawed their way back, courtesy of a spirited performance and two more goals from Badovinac.

“Once that happened that weekend, I said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a chance against anybody,’” Cavalluzzo says. “Knowing [that the players] can do that in single games… Yeah, we can go on and do this again.”

And they certainly did.

Making history

Under Cavalluzzo’s management, the women’s soccer team reached the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Final Four for the first time since 2004, earned a silver medal in the OUA for the first time since 1990, reached the national U SPORTS level for the first time since 2013, and recorded their best-ever U SPORTS season, with a third-place finish in Victoria, British Columbia.

The Blues produced thrilling soccer throughout, making effective use of the wide areas through Badovinac on the right and Jenny Wolever on the left. Centre-forward Erin Kelly provided strong hold-up play and pressing as the Blues looked to defend on the front foot when they lost the ball. In the centre of the pitch, Captain Maddie MacKay regularly acted as a conduit between the defenders and forwards. In goal, Staggolis was an immovable barrier to opposition attacks, regularly pulling off vital saves.

The season confounded all expectations — even those that Cavalluzzo’s coaching staff and the players had initially set. The former had targeted an OUA quarterfinal place, which would entail the tall order of a top-two OUA East regular season finish in order to secure a bye, or finishing between third and sixth and winning the extra knockout OUA playoff game. Furthermore, the players had set the loftier target of reaching the OUA final four, which would require the added step of actually winning the quarterfinal.

“We did both,” he says. “And then we exceeded both.”

What makes the achievement even more impressive is that the Blues had lost their graduated star players Chelsea Cheung and Natasha Klasios prior to the start of the season. The team’s two top scorers in 2018, Cheung had scored seven goals in 16 games, while Klasios had netted six in 17.

Fortunately, they recruited wisely. The Blues added Badovinac from the University at Albany Great Danes, as well as the three-time OUA all-star and then-reigning OUA East player of the year, Wolever from the Queen’s Gaels. Cavalluzzo credits the experience both of them brought to the team as a boon to the Blues’ ultimate unprecedented success. Badovinac and Wolever both played 21 games in the season, scoring 13 and nine goals respectively.

He recounts the season’s story from the Varsity Pavilion, overlooking the stadium in which his team recorded four wins, one loss, and the aforementioned two draws during the regular season. He gestures out of the window toward the field below when he talks about his players, as if evoking their spirits. While the soccer season is over and the goal posts are no longer even on the field, Cavalluzzo gives the impression that this is still very much home.

“That group of players is a special group that I’ll never forget… This year, as my first year as [head] coach, for them to do that, for me, is special.”

The unexpected path

Cavalluzzo’s path to the Blues head coach role was an unexpected one, like many of his other career moves. Still only 26, Cavalluzzo played as a goalkeeper for the McMaster Marauders men’s soccer team while pursuing a degree in chemical engineering and bioengineering from 2011–2015. He earned four OUA medals, one silver U SPORTS medal, and a 2014 OUA All-Star place. He also had stints playing with the Toronto FC Academy and the semi-professional outfit, Niagara United, during this time.

After graduation, he worked as a goalkeeping coach at both McMaster and the Toronto FC Academy, following an invitation from their coach Luciano Lombardi.

Soon after, he was invited to train with Toronto FC II, where unexpected starting goalkeeper injuries meant that Cavalluzzo was called into action and played in five games. At the end of the season, his solid performances convinced Toronto FC II to offer him a professional contract.

“It was unexpected — I think my whole life after school is kind of unexpected,” Cavalluzzo says. “When I graduated [from McMaster] I didn’t expect to be playing soccer. [I] expected to get an engineering job and that would be it.”

After securing his position as first-choice goalkeeper and making over 30 appearances across two years, Cavalluzzo ruptured his Achilles tendon in May 2018. Fans feared that he could miss the rest of the season — in actuality, that was his last game for the club.

Despite this, the following 12 months proved to be a whirlwind.

In August 2018, Lombardi, who was the Blues women’s soccer team head coach at the time, invited Cavalluzzo to join the Blues as an assistant coach. Three months after that, Cavalluzzo finally got his engineering job too, with engineering company AGI Danmare. Then, in April 2019, he was appointed as the Blues’ associate head coach, following Lombardi’s departure.

The rest, as they say, is history. Or, more accurately, the rest involved the creation of new history and new heights.

Onward and upward

This past season, the Blues were one win away from their first-ever OUA gold medal. At the U SPORTS level, they were two wins shy of their first-ever national gold medal — which begs the question: does Cavalluzzo believe the Blues can top what they achieved last season?

“It’s very clearly going to be our goal,” he says, before adding that the unpredictability of the OUA knockout stages means that nothing is certain.

“But obviously that’s going to be our goal — is to win an OUA gold and U SPORTS gold. And whether that happens next year, [the] year after, or four or five years from now, it’s already going to be our goal because seeing what we did last year, I think they’re going to be hungry for more. And knowing that [the players] can do it, they’re never going to lower their expectations. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse, I think it’s a very good thing.”

The task of improving upon an excellent season will be made tougher by the departure of key players Wolever and right-back Daniella Cipriano, who have both reached their eligibility cap. Goalkeeper Stephania Turyk and defender Marie Kuhn are also leaving, while the returns of fourth-year trio Mackay, Staggolis, and defender Anna Crone are yet to be confirmed.

Fortunately, Cavalluzzo now has nine months to prepare for next season, and his squad has already been bolstered with six new recruits, with more to come. This ambition, experience, and recruitment drive provides a good framework for the continued growth of the women’s soccer program.

Beyond the Blues

But what about the overall state of women’s soccer in Canada?

Cavalluzzo contemplates this question for a moment, before delving into a clear and frank assessment of the complex ecosystem.

He says that Canada’s women’s team has stagnated in recent years, and he hopes that last year’s launch of the professional Canadian Premier League for men will result in a similar enterprise to cultivate professional women soccer players. However, he’s also keenly aware of the financial obstacles obstructing such goals, especially given the protracted saga surrounding men’s soccer.

“How can we foster [women soccer players’] technical ability, that love of soccer and not let it fade away because they realize that, ‘Oof I can’t make a living out of this, I’m just going to stop and give up?’ And if you probably asked a survey of all university student athletes — and soccer specifically — how many continue to play [competitively] after university… I bet you that number’s a lot lower than anyone would want it to be.”

When asked about the role that Canadian universities’ women’s soccer programs play in contributing to this end goal, Cavalluzzo is quick to identify the structural barriers that exist.

“I think the environment we create for them is very, very good, but you have to look at it as: it is university and it’s a niche group of athletes that you’re going to get here because not everyone has the academics to get in,” he says. “That’s our reality. And we try and make the most out of it and to give student athletes the best experience they can. And if they want to go on and play soccer afterward, I have every intention of helping them do that.”

While Cavalluzzo’s goalkeeping career may have been cut short, his coaching revolution is just beginning. And based on the evidence of this past season, his players — past, present, and future — are in very safe hands.

Disclosure: Michael Teoh previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 138 Deputy Senior Copy Editor and Volume 139 Business Editor.