(Photo: Bob Twidle)
(Photo: Kevin Raposo Photography)
Worries were at a minimum when Oakville Blue Devils' reserves dropped points in their first two games of the U-21 Reserve League.
With little room for error in the three-month season, the team led by coach Billy Steele understood what they had to do as they pulled up their bootstraps to uphold their club's reputation.
A streak of 10-consecutive wins later had the Oakville Blue Devils II finishing the season as champions with the top attacking and defensive records in the league.
Dylan Serpa, Deryn Armstrong, and Mohamad Shamkhi - all born in 2000 or after - netted more than half of the 43 goals scored by the team. And with only 13 goals conceded, the future looks bright for young Blue Devils, who are already used to lifting trophies.
The combination of calculated player development and the hunger to win everything in sight is what many clubs desire, but only a select few can achieve. Youth players can rise through the ranks at Oakville knowing that club head coach Duncan Wilde will stoke the flames to push themselves to make individual progress while still reaching collective objectives.
2019 League1 Ontario Reserve Champions: Oakville Blue Devils (Photo: courtesy of Oakville Blue Devils)
"Most high-profile clubs and academies are trying to have a double-edged sword," Wilde said. "We want to run an established business, but we also want to produce players and progress them along."
"I think people coming to the Blue Devils realize that we got a winning tradition, and that's an exciting opportunity for them."
That winning tradition, defined by the senior teams and illustrated by the U-21 reserves, shows the commitment to the Blue Devil way as the club swept all League1 Ontario divisions with first-place finishes.
The club shows faith in their youth products to compete at high levels, giving players the responsibility to lead their teams to glory. Brandon Duarte, Manny Gill, and Luka Frankovich are only part of the large contingent of academy products that established their roles within the first team.
To have so many players ready for the next stage, the Blue Devils staff maintain a consistent culture and system within the club. Their attacking sensibility combined with a sound defensive structure can only be preserved when the foundation is laid for generations to follow with veteran leadership like Lucas Birnstingl and Zak Drake to complement the youngsters.
"We always have a sprinkling of senior players that have been around a while that are excellent for the locker room," Wilde said. "That blend gives us a real nice environment for the players to train, progress, and develop."
That culture is also being implemented in the women's side of the club despite only being built in 2018.
Women's head coach John Yacou ensured he would continue the Blue Devil way, building upon the great successes of last season when they narrowly missed the playoffs by a point.
"The message was: 'Are you satisfied that we had a great seven-game winning streak, or do you believe that this team can go further?'" Yacou said about 2018. "We need to be the team that whoever plays against us will know they're in for a big game."
Signing All-Star defender Rachel Melhado from Vaughan proved to be the key in building the top defence of the division in 2019. Mahira Ali continued to torch the pitch with 18 goals, but also contributed many assists while letting her teammates take penalty kicks on numerous occasions, despite being in a tight race for the Golden Boot. Those selfless acts on the field didn’t go unnoticed by her coach.
"It says a lot about her, and a lot about the character of these women," Yacou said. "Not every game is about what they will achieve individually. It's more as a collective group."
The collective mindset isn't lost on the men’s side. Even though the scoring outputs decreased without 2018 Golden Boot winner Anthony Novak, now with Forge FC, the team united together to only allow eight goals all season, keeping 10 clean sheets in the process.
And with a month of post-season soccer left to go, Wilde knows he can count on his destined stars to step up here and elsewhere. While Serpa left earlier in the summer to sign with Mansfield Town FC in England, Armstrong's future is shining bright to one day lead the forward line with five, or hopefully more, stars over the crest.
"He's not overwhelmed by League1 and the environment, he's taking that in stride," Wilde said about Armstrong. "He's just very exciting to watch, and I'm sure he's going to be able to come through and do very well for us."
The Blue Devils have created an environment in the Oakville and Burlington area where dreams of future professional careers can come true. Lifting titles on the journey only help lift the spirit of the club and the cities.
"When you got a good crowd at your games that are rooting for you, you can create an atmosphere," Wilde said.
"If we can win some championships, then why not? It's a lot of fun."
(Photo: Martin Bazyl Photography)