Every season, one team has a target on their back. That team is almost always the one who won it all the year before, the team who is coming back to defend a national title. This year, that team is the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
What is somewhat unusual about this Golden Bears team is that of their twenty-nine-man roster, only three players are in their final year of eligibility. Those three men are Sebastian Crema, Tolu Esan, and Ajay Khabra.
Esan and Khabra started their university careers together in Edmonton, having played all five years as a part of the same team, experiencing the same impressive evolution of a team that went from a 7-6-2 record to winning a national championship.
Crema, however, only joined the team last year after having played three seasons for the University of British Columbia. He brings experience that is unique even to a transfer student. His first season of then-CIS soccer was in 2007, ten years before this year’s rookie class.
As a trio, Crema, Esan, and Khabra combine in complementary fashion to lead their team, to set a standard of excellence and to use their experience to work towards the extremely elusive title of back-to-back champions.
Coming off of a national gold last year, to now only having lost one game on the season thus far, it would be easy for the Golden Bears to become complacent. But Khabra described the environment as one that will not allow for that, by explaining that “it comes down to the competition level within the squad.”
In some instances, competition within a team leads to toxicity, creating tension and spite amongst teammates. However, all three seniors attest to the fact that the whole team is working towards the same cause, and this leaves no space for negative energy.
“Everybody is happy when the team scores a goal, no matter who scores it,” said Crema. “We’re playing for the team’s success.”
This ability to focus solely on how well the team does was reflected in conversation with each of the three players — a clear indication of the culture and values that have been built amongst the Golden Bears.
“It just comes down to trying to be selfless people on the field and off the field,” said Khabra. “We’re all committed to one cause, which is winning.”
A culture of selflessness can become cliché in the world of sports, yet this is not the case when it comes to these three. Each described the other two in the same way, explaining that they lead by example and they have a way of inspiring the team that is unique to them.
They described their ability to complement each other as athletes, and in doing so, they complemented their teammates’ personalities.
“Both guys are great because they both have great individual qualities, but sometimes they put those aside and do whatever is best for the team,” said Khabra.
Added Esan, “we do well with complementing each other because we realize that as fifth-years we do have that responsibility to motivate the team.”
What is best for the team can get lost in the individual statistics that are kept, but in the end, it is one team that wins a championship, not one athlete. A team-first focus is beyond important, and oftentimes it is the team statistics that are a clear indication of where the concentration lies.
For the U of A — who sits atop the leaderboards in both assists and in shutouts — it is clear that the intention is to work together to be the best team in the country for the second year in a row. One player passes, another scores. A whole roster works together to play defence.
“It comes down to mindset,” added Khabra. “No matter what position you are on the field you have to do your job defensively.”
For each of the three seniors, their motivation is slightly different, and yet they all have a theme of winning for someone beside themselves.
For Esan, it is to make history and end his career with back-to-back titles with his team.
For Khabra, it is to achieve the success of overcoming the challenge of winning when you already have won.
And for Crema, it is to lead and appreciate the opportunity of playing with a team as amazing as this one.
All three work together to demonstrate to their younger teammates what it means to lead. To work hard. To be united. And in some instances, to bounce back from adversity.
Despite only having one loss this season, they understand the importance of that loss, and have taken it as an opportunity to learn.
“Sometimes it’s good for us to get that loss in there,” mentioned Esan. “That loss is kind of a wakeup call that we’re not invincible. We have to still perform; we have to put in work. Even though having a loss is a negative thing, there are a lot of positive things that come from it.”
This mature ability to reflect is one that was clear in each of Crema, Esan, and Khabra. They have learned their individual styles of leadership, and perhaps what is more important, how to combine them to create success.