A field of dreams

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

The young girl looks positively giddy as she mills in and about her heroes, the signatures of many of them gracing the T-shirt she proudly wears.

It is one of those exciting moments of youth, a time to meet and greet with role models you might just dream of emulating yourself someday.

A generation of soccer-playing girls in Ottawa can now see the opportunity is better than ever before. That the biggest things of all are possible if they continue to pursue the game they love.

The presence of the Ottawa Fury in their town offers that kind of hope and example.

\"You experience that (adulation) each and every game,\" says Fury veteran midfielder Danielle Vella at a gathering of the side, which opens its fourth W-League season today in Trenton, N.J., against the New Jersey Wildcats. \"We get asked for autographs or to have our pictures taken with (young girls). It\'s a very rewarding experience.

\"The first few times it happens, it\'s surprising, but you get used to it. It\'s more suprising when it happens in other cities. In Ottawa, it\'s absolutely wonderful.\"

Take a quick look at the Fury roster, and you\'ll see a boatload of players currently on U.S. scholarships or playing at Canadian universities. Some, including \'keeper Taryn Swiatek, midfielder Amy Vermuelen and striker Rhian Wilkinson, have attracted national team attention.

\"This is a great forum for the national team coach (Even Pellerud) to see players,\" said Vella.

It\'s clear, then, that the W-League is elite-level women\'s soccer. No wonder John Pugh, who took over ownership of the Ottawa Fury Soccer Club last summer, senses growing interest in his program, which also fields four youth teams in the Super-Y League.

The Fury ranked in the top third of the W-League in attendance last year, but Pugh said \"I think we\'ll do better this year. There\'s a lot more promotion and marketing being done, and more interest in the team. We had a very large crowd for our last game last season against Boston.\"

This season\'s home opener is next Sunday at 2 p.m., against the Rochester Ravens. The Fury home grounds remain the same: Keith Harris Stadium at Carleton University.

TOUGH DIVISION

Last season, the side went 5-5-2 in finished fourth in the Northern Division of the Eastern Conference -- a grouping that includes last year\'s league champs, the Boston Renegades.

This year, the push is on for a playoff berth.

\"The club has been investing quite a bit of energy and money into the team,\" said second-year coach Frank Lofranco, a former professional player. \"The expectation is that we will make the playoffs and put on an entertaining product for the fans of the city.\"

They\'ll try with a side that has turned over half its roster since last year.

\"Half the team is made up of new players,\" said Lofranco. \"Partly by design, and partly responding to key injuries (to captain Noel Trepanier and national team veteran Isabelle Morneau). But we have a good core of 7-8 players that are returning, and that\'s an important factor, too.\"

The tough part, he said, will be forming a cohesive unit as quickly as possible.

\"We all have the same challenge -- getting a group of very talented players to come together as a team in a very short period of time,\" he said.

\"Most of them have never played together.\"

It\'s only a 14-game schedule, running through the end of July and tucked nicely between college soccer seasons south of the border.

\"(College coaches) want their players to go back for the fall season match-fit,\" said Pugh. \"They don\'t want them sitting on the beach. It\'s designed specifically for that reason.\"

For a veteran such as Vella, the purpose is different. On the heels of winning two national club championships with South Nepean United, there was the need for a new opportunity.

The birth of the Fury supplied it.

\"After (the club titles), there was nothing more to be achieved,\" said Vella, 29, who fits soccer around her job as a software designer for Entrust Inc. \"This was definitely a new challenge. It\'s the reason I\'m still playing.\"

Good for her. And for those starry-eyed young girls who might someday like to reach for such heights themselves.

Said Vella: \"When I was growing up, there wasn\'t anything like this available. This gives girls something more to aspire to.\"

BANVILLE ON THE BEAM AT GYM NATIONALS

It\'s been quite the week for Ottawa Gymnastics Club athletes at the national championships in Saskatoon.

Melanie Banville of Long Sault ranked highest of the bunch, placing second in the senior women\'s all-around competition. Banville had the highest score on floor exercise (9.425), ranked second on uneven bars (9.0) and was No. 3 on balance beam (9.1).

Senior event finals were last night.

OGC\'s Cara Pomeroy also had a strong week. She\'s placed fourth all-around in the open women\'s category, and earned second-place finishes on two apparatus: Bars (9.575) and beam (9.475). She was also fourth in floor exercise (9.2).

Teammate Zuyen Vuong, a late entry as an injury replacement, also performed well, tying for ninth overall in a field of 62. Vuong with second on floor with a On the men\'s side, Bryson Hunt placed fifth in the all-around competition. Hunt also had the top two-day scores for floor exercise and parallel bars, and earned the highest second-day mark (9.03) on thepommel horse.

Olivier Rochon finished fourth all-around among Level 5 men.

In women\'s trampoline, Heather McManus of Ottawa placed second behind six-time Canadian champion Karen Cockburn of Toronto.

GREAT SKATES: The Gloucester Skating Club recently honoured some of its top performers at its annual spring banquet. Among the honourees: Kyle Ring and Gloucester Emerald Blades, Elizabeth Manley Awards; Bryce Halls, Laura Liston, Amanda Rotondo, Meagan Mainville, Erin Middlebrook, Carla Anderson, and the Fine Line, Emerald Blades and Green Machine teams, President\'s Awards; Victoria Channing-Choi, CanSkater of the year, and Halls, CanSkate Spirit of Skating. Also recognized were three Skate Canada EasternOntario Achievement Award winners from the club: Alana Greaves, program assistant of the year; Stephanie Bray, Starskate athlete of the year, and Jocelyne Leroux, volunteer of excellence.

THE ROAD TO ATHENS: Ottawa\'s Michelle Buckingham was a silver medallist in the Under-57 kg category in the second stage of the Zone America Olympic Selection judo meet in Mexico City. All 14 Canadian judokas entered won medals, including six gold.The meet was one of a series of five being used to determine entries for the 2004 Athens Olympics. At each event, athletes can win points to qualify their category for a Canadian spot in Athens. The next stage comes in two weeks, at the Pan American championships in Brazil.

AROUND THE AMATEUR SCENE: Marcus Nicholson, Thomas Robertson, Shawn McHale, Catherine Biggs, Lisa Fulford, Christy Takahashi, Thomas Filter, Nicholas Tritton, Carol Nhan, Steven Hayami and Tony Walby, all of whom train at the Ottawa and Takahashi judo clubs, are representing Ontario at the senior national championships this weekend in Prince Albert, Sask. ... The Arnprior Judo Club is the host for the East Region tournament, today starting at 10 a.m. at the Nick Smith Centre.


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