Experienced, composed, and with a clever trick or two up her sleeve, the University of Manitoba Bisons’ Megan Graca knows her way around a CIS pitch. This season, the midfield maestro leads the team with five assists in 12 appearances and is set to conclude a memorable university career.
Although she keeps her game simple, Graca possesses a certain know-how that sets her apart from any midfielder. Her creativity can be summed up by a match this season against Calgary, when she took advantage of windy conditions and tested the goalkeeper with an impressive 40-yard volley. The result was a spectacular effort that struck the crossbar.
Yet things weren’t so defined for a younger Graca in her hometown of Thunder Bay, Ont. The product of Lakehead Express Soccer Club was a relative puppy amongst the top dogs of youth soccer.
For Graca, the experience was motivational both physically and mentally.
“For most of my soccer career in Thunder Bay I played with players older than me,” said the fifth-year player. “It made me push myself to be better every day. I had to be quicker and smarter about everything, knowing I had a disadvantage.”
As an under-18 player, she contributed to Lakehead’s gold medal victory at the 2010 Kanata Invitational Soccer Showcase Tournament. It was proof that her hours of effort on the training ground had paid off exponentially.
From the outskirts of northwestern Ontario, Graca then made the decision to try soccer outside of Thunder Bay. Although leaving home is never an easy endeavour, the verdict was decisive for the then-teenager.
“Right from high school I knew I wanted to go away to university to play soccer,” Graca said. “It was just a matter of where and how far I wanted to go. I decided to pick the closest school from home and settled on the University of Manitoba.”
Her choice on joining the herd also extended a Lakehead Express connection with the University of Manitoba through alumnus Laura Harrison. The former Bisons goalkeeper was recruited from the Express in 2008.
From Thunder Bay to the Prairies in 2011, Graca had taken on another challenge: the transition of turning into a CIS-level athlete right out of the U-18 ranks.
There was a clear indication right from the kick-off of her Bisons career that the competitive nature of the CIS was well beyond her expectations.
“Nothing really truly prepared me for the CIS besides field experience in actual CIS games. The style of play in the CIS is way different from what I experienced in Thunder Bay,” Graca said.
“It is much more aggressive and you have to be so fit to be able to keep up with everybody else. It took me almost two years to finally get the hang of playing to the level required.”
First she conquered the challenge at the U-18 level in Ontario, then repeating that feat in the CIS. At the peak of her eligibility, Graca can hang up her boots having transitioned from an untested freshman to a dominant presence in the Canada West Division.
The journey not only earns a personal ovation from the athlete herself, but it also sets a genuine example on the approach to turn the next group of young and talented Bisons into CIS success stories.
Perhaps the extra motivation to make a role model of herself came with the honor of meeting soccer idol Desiree Scott. A two-way midfielder with tireless work rate, Graca’s style of play resembles that of the former Bison.
“I admire her for her foot skills and toughness on the ball,” said Graca. “Not only is she a good soccer player, but she also does a lot for the community like running soccer camps and is always willing to take time to talk to her fans. In my Bisons career, I was privileged to get to know Desiree and even have her coach a few of our training sessions.”
Graca’s greatest soccer memory might as well serve as a testament to yet another uprising in her soccer career. Like many athletes of her pedigree and experience, there are many moments to pick from, but her choice was clear: a goal that clinched victory against heavyweights the Calgary Dinos last season.
On the occasion, Graca curled a late free kick from distance beyond goalkeeper Samantha Chang-Foidl as the Bisons saw off the Dinos 3-2. The strike marked her only goal for that season, but it was unforgettable nevertheless.
“It was an emotional yet thrilling goal. I was glad to be a part of the win and it gave our team more confidence. I think we took that coming into this year’s season,” Graca said.
Any given CIS career is littered with an impressive number of lessons to be learned. Heading into her final playoff appearance at the university level, Graca is grateful for what Manitoba Bisons soccer has given her over the last five years.
“I’ve learned that you can’t take any moments for granted,” said Graca. “Every game played has been such an amazing experience and I’ve learned so much from playing at the university level. Not only have I grown as a player, I have grown as a person and I can thank soccer for that.”