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For O’Brien, home is where the heart is

Memorial Sea-Hawks defender Michael O’Brien likes to the makeup of this year’s squad. O’Brien is a key addition to the team looking to make its way back into the AUS playoffs.
Memorial Sea-Hawks defender Michael O’Brien likes to the makeup of this year’s squad. O’Brien is a key addition to the team looking to make its way back into the AUS playoffs.

After three-plus years in Ottawa chasing the pro soccer dream, Michael O’Brien admits one of his worries returning to his native Newfoundland this year was regretting the move.

Long story short, it’s been so far, so good for the first-year Memorial Sea-Hawks defender.

“It’s not an easy decision to come to,” he said, “putting any kind of idea of a pro career dream in the past. But I’m comfortable with my decision, and comfortable being a Sea-Hawk.”

Since 2014, after he was noticed playing for Team Atlantic at the U15 all-star nationals — he was a member of provincial all-star teams coming up through the minor ranks — O’Brien had been part of the Ottawa Fury FC program.

The Fury was then part of the North American Soccer League, and O’Brien, now 19, was a member of the develop squad.

The Mount Pearl native played his first season as a 15-year-old in the Super Y league, comprised of club teams primarily from upstate New York.

It meant training four days a week in the nation’s capital, before heading off to the U.S. for competition eight or nine straight weekends through the spring and summer.

For the past two years, O’Brien toiled with Ottawa’s developmental squad in the Quebec semi-pro league.

This year, the Fury opted to join the United Soccer League, the AHL to the NHL’s MLS, to use a hockey analogy.

Shortly afterwards, Ottawa dissolved its Academy, which only strengthened O’Brien’s desire to turn his attention towards university rather than stick around and compete for a job on the Fury.

During his tenure in the Fury’s Academy, O’Brien was responsible for his own housing, and there wasn’t a lot of cash floating around from the team.

“I’d been weighing my options,” he said, “and was beginning to think more and more about going to try and get an education.”

He wasn’t without university offers. He’d been taking courses at the University of Ottawa, but neighbouring Carleton had reached out to him. So did a couple of U.S. schools, namely Jacksonville (Fla.) University, New York’s Niagara University and the University of New Hampshire.

But first off the mark, however, was Memorial and Sea-Hawks’ coach Jake Stanford, who had spoken with O’Brien while he was still in Ottawa.

“I was home last Christmas thinking about what was ahead of me, and I’d been speaking with Jake,” O’Brien said.

“Eventually, I hope to go to work with my father (Gerry O’Brien, who is in the financial planning business) anyway, and I asked myself, ‘Do I want to go away for another four years?’

“It came down to staying closer to family. Whether it was four years here, or four years away, it was the same price.”

O’Brien received a scholarship from Memorial, and is now, along with Alex Pretty, the Challenge Cup playoff MVP for Holy Cross, a cornerstone in the Sea-Hawks’ backfield.

“I can honestly say I’m very excited,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been following the Sea-Hawks since I was a kid.”

All fine and dandy, but what about this little matter of the Sea-Hawks managing only three wins in 12 tries last year, and falling out of the playoffs after securing an Atlantic University Sport post-season berth in 2015?

“All I can say is the training and the whole atmosphere surrounding the team this season has been great,” he said. “Our training was probably more intensive than the games this past weekend (the season-opening, two-game set in which MUN made short work of the Mount Allison Mounties).

“Yes, we didn’t make the playoffs last year but the maturity of the team has come leaps and bounds. We have some very good players … (Tyler) Forsey and (Tyler) Kirby up front, Ryan Farrell (a newcomer from Ireland) will solidify the midfield and (keeper) Braeden Sheppard will be a big part of the team this year.

“His commitment to conditioning and training is indicative of the whole team,” O’Brien said of the Memorial goalie.

In O’Brien, who played the 2017 Challenge Cup campaign with Mount Pearl, and Pretty, the Sea-Hawks’ centreback position is in good hands, or feet, as it were.

“One hundred per cent,” Stanford said. “They make our team better.”

With the high-scoring Kirby and Forsey, it’s Stanford’s aim to play an attacking game this season, “but if you don’t get the ball, you can have all the attacking you want. It doesn’t matter.

“Not only does he (O’Brien) solidify the defence, he has the ability to keep the ball and start us up the field. It’s like the hockey defenceman who moves the puck. The backfield is the point at which you start attacking, and Michael has the vision and technical ability to get the job done.”

The Sea-Hawks, 2-0 on the young season, along with the 2-0 Lady Hawks women’s team, are in Halifax this weekend for games against Saint Mary’s University and Dalhousie.

Both men’s and women’s teams play Saturday and Sunday.

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