CPL DEEP DIVE: Cape Breton University’s meteoric rise to U SPORTS powerhouse

Welcome to CPL DEEP DIVE, a series that takes an in-depth look at a particular subject matter of interest in the Canadian Premier League, examining it from a variety of angles and perspectives. The latest installment of this web feature takes a look at Cape Breton University, one of the best university programs in Canada, and its impact on the CPL-U SPORTS Draft.

“We want to be small, but we want to be great at what we do.” — Deano Morley, head coach, Cape Breton University men’s soccer

Cape Breton Island has a population just over 130,000. Its university has 5,500 students.

And somehow, the tiny institution in Sydney, Nova Scotia has contributed more players to the CPL-U SPORTS Draft than any other school in Canada.

In the first two years of the Draft, eight of the 33 players picked came from Cape Breton University. HFX Wanderers FC fans can thank CBU for Peter Schaale and Cory Bent, two major pieces of the club’s 2020 run to the CPL Final.

The Cape Breton Capers have won four straight Atlantic University Sport titles, and they’ve medalled at three consecutive U SPORTS national championships — winning the whole thing in 2017. A CBU player has been named a U SPORTS All-Canadian every single year since 2009.

“They’ve recruited very well, very diligently,” Wanderers boss Stephen Hart said of CBU. “The program has had some very good success at the U SPORTS level. I think that just goes to show the quality of the organization and the connections that they have.”

For the 2021 Draft this Friday, five Cape Breton players are available — as many or more than any other university.

The question, though: why Cape Breton? How did a 38-year-old institution that won its first men’s soccer title just 14 years ago sprout from tabula rasa into a powerhouse, and the country’s top-producing school for Canadian Premier League talent?

John Ryan, the university’s athletic director since 2002, puts it down to “the culture and leadership of the team.” A well-honed recruitment process — overseas in particular — has also helped, as has the fact that CBU only fields varsity teams in soccer and basketball (while larger schools might offer 25 to 30 different sports).

Ryan likened CBU’s soccer program to Carleton University’s basketball teams, which dominate the U SPORTS scene. Carleton is six times the size of Cape Breton, though.

Once you’ve established a program at such a high level, then more kids are reaching out to us now than ever to be part of it,” Ryan said. 

It turns out, there’s a lot that goes into it.

Cape Breton coaches Scott Clarke (L) and Deano Morley (R). (Photo: Vaughan Merchant)
Cape Breton coaches Scott Clarke (L) and Deano Morley (R). (Photo: Vaughan Merchant)

“A very David and Goliath feeling”

To start, it helps to understand the man at the helm: two-time U SPORTS Coach of the Year Deano Morley.

Morley’s path from Nottingham, England to the head coach’s post at Cape Breton is, in essence, a love story. Almost 20 years ago, Morley — then a young footballer himself — set out from the U.K. for the U.S., where he earned a scholarship to play university soccer.

“At the time I met a young lady in New York who was from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia,” Morley recounted. “And after a couple of years she wanted to move home. I got on a plane and arrived here.”

It seems the effect was instant: “I fell in love with this beautiful island. I knew that this is the place I wanted to call home and raise a family, and we’ve lived here ever since.”

Morley landed in Canada in 2004, and he’s never left. He saw out his playing days as a Caper, and upon graduating in 2006, he stayed on as an assistant coach for the men’s team. He’d balance that with a technical director job with Soccer Nova Scotia for several years, before taking over as head coach at CBU in 2014. He succeeded the late Robbie Chiasson, who had coached Morley himself as a player and brought the Capers their first three Atlantic titles.

Chiasson’s were big shoes to fill; as an assistant coach under him, Morley saw firsthand the very beginnings of Cape Breton’s rise to the top of the Atlantic conference.

“He took over the program in 2003, and at the time the idea of CBU competing for an Atlantic University Sport championship was just a dream,” Morley recalled. “In 2006 we became competitive; in 2007 it was my first year as an assistant coach and we won the AUS, and we were able to beat the two powerhouse schools at the time, Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s, and we won our first title.

“That was a groundbreaking moment for the program, because we started to believe that we could.”

RELATED READING: More on the 2021 CPL-U SPORTS Draft

The Capers went to the nationals four times under Chiasson, improving every time. By 2012, they’d won bronze and silver at the U SPORTS championships, and in consecutive years to boot.

“It was a very David and Goliath feeling for us,” Morley stated. “We were a school of around 3,000 students, and we were competing against schools of 60 to 80 thousand students. We were going against giants in some way, and we were trying to do it as underdogs.”

When Morley took over the program himself in 2014, the next step in CBU’s soccer evolution was shedding the giant-killers label — by becoming giants themselves.

“We really came in with a much different philosophy — not to be the underdogs, not to be the small guys in this country,” he explained. “But we really had the drive and the ambition and the dedication to go out and build the best football program in this country.”

It all bore fruit in 2017. Morley’s team rolled through the AUS that year, winning 11 out of 12 games and scoring 32 goals. Seven players from that team — Peter Schaale, Cory Bent, Marcus Campanile, Charlie Waters, Daniel Pritchard, Lewis White, and Jack Simpson — have since had their name called at the CPL Draft.

A year prior, a similar Cape Breton squad finished fourth at the U SPORTS championship. This time, though, things were different. For one thing, they didn’t have Schaale the year before, and he went on to win two AUS MVP awards in subsequent seasons.

After blowing through their first two opponents at nationals in 2017, the battle-hardened Capers went all the way to a penalty shootout for gold against the University of Montreal.

“One thing that I remember is in extra time looking around at my teammates, and thinking how much we’d put into the game,” recalled Bent, who played all 120 minutes. “When you look to the man on the left and the man on the right, to see that they’re putting everything else in that they’d got in the tank for you, I think that’s when we really saw that we came together as a team.”

And so, the Capers brought home the national gold. The smallest school at the tournament had put themselves at the forefront of Canadian university soccer, knocking off three opponents with student populations well over double Cape Breton’s.

“When we won the national championship, oh my goodness. Coming back to the island it was just so powerful,” Morley said. “Everybody on the island felt connected to it, felt a part of it. We couldn’t go to a grocery store or walk down the street without being stopped. Everyone felt pride.”

Such is the nature of bringing success to a small community. On a campus as small as CBU’s, the soccer players are well-known — not as celebrity athletes, necessarily, but as friends and classmates of pretty much everyone.

“We won a lot of games, four AUS titles during my time,” Bent reminisced. “The celebrations, they never became normal. We still celebrated each win as a team and wholeheartedly. I think that’s the kind of environment that I’ve become used to, and it’s really influential.”

Cape Breton players celebrate winning the 2018 AUS championship. (Photo: Vaughan Merchant)
Cape Breton players and staff celebrate winning the 2018 AUS championship. (Photo: Vaughan Merchant)

“They have to convince me that they deserve this”

Building the best football program in the country is much easier said than done, of course. Morley will tell you that a lot goes into being a Cape Breton Caper.

I’d be shocked if there’s a more competitive, more intense, more committed training environment out there,” the coach offered. “We push these players constantly, and the players push themselves constantly.”

Morley gives a lot of credit to his coaching staff — Vernon O’Quinn, Scott Clarke, and Brian Tierney, all of whom have deep roots in the Nova Scotia soccer community. O’Quinn, in fact, has been at CBU longer than even Morley.

The first thing one notices looking at Cape Breton’s roster might be the international contingent — last season’s squad featured 12 players from as far afield as the U.K., Germany, and Albania.

That’s not unique to the soccer team, though; CBU’s student population is about 64 per cent international, according to Ryan — a necessity for a location such as Cape Breton.

That’s part of the reason why, of the 10 international players ever selected in the CPL-U SPORTS Draft, seven have been Capers.

“We’re not York or UBC or Montreal or Alberta — we’re not in mass-populated metropolitan hubs where there are the academies and the links to the pro clubs, and it’s very challenging to try and get the top players out of TFC academies and Whitecaps academies,” Morley explained.

“I left home at a young age, I’ve been a student athlete. I’m now very privileged to be able to offer this opportunity to young men from around the world. There’s a lot of very good, talented footballers in Europe and in other places that come so close to playing at the professional level, and for one reason or another, the opportunity’s gone. This opportunity, to use your football as an opportunity to get an education, is a really amazing second chance for a lot of young men.”

Peter Schaale is a textbook example. He grew up in Germany, where he bounced around several academies to little avail. As luck would have it, a friend of his from high school — Joel Eckert Ayensa, himself a U SPORT All-Canadian in 2016 — had been recruited by CBU through his agent.

“I kept in touch with Joel, he kept telling me about CBU, how it was nice, he liked it, and they were looking for a centre-back,” Schaale recounted.

Not long after, Morley sold Schaale on the idea, and the 20-year-old defender hopped on a plane.

“(I knew) nothing. Absolutely nothing, especially about Cape Breton or Nova Scotia,” he said. “I was a bit shocked when I first arrived, but I got used to it.”

RELATED READING: CPL-U SPORTS Draft: ‘Commitment’ outshines COVID-19’s effect in 2021 draft

Cory Bent, likewise, didn’t have Canada on his radar until he heard from CBU. In the end, he turned down offers in Florida and Indiana in favour of the mysterious Canadian adventure.

“Cape Breton and especially Deano resonated with me,” Bent said. “He had the same goals as I did, and he’s there to build a program.”

By now, though, Morley says it’s not actually that hard to find interested players now that there’s a standard in place. In fact, he’s forced to say no to plenty of potential recruits who may not be the right fit.

“When you ask how I convinced them, I really don’t,” he said. “They have to convince me that they deserve this, that they do want to come here for the right reasons.”

He added: “I have no room for egos. This isn’t an environment for everybody. There’s a lot of young men that we say no to, who would like to be in a place where it’s a bigger city, where there might be more bars and nightclubs, where they might be able to party. This is an environment to limit distractions; we have basketball and soccer at our university… When I’m talking to a prospective student-athlete, it’s powerful. I’ve been at big schools, I’ve seen big schools where you get lost in the weeds. Not here.

You’re seen and looked at as a top-level athlete on our island. There’s pride connected to that, responsibility connected to that, but yeah, you can come in and be a big fish in a small pond.”

There’s one thing in particular Morley wants to emphasize, though: success with the help of international players does not come at the expense of the domestic game.

Morley’s philosophy is very clear: keeping high-quality players from abroad is critical to the growth of soccer in Canada. Were it not for the standards set by international players, he may not have been able to recruit Mississauga native Isaiah Johnston, drafted by York United (then York9 FC) last year.

The domestic contingent keeps growing, too; in 2021, Cape Breton’s recruiting class features 12 Canadians from five different provinces, and no internationals.

“My number one priority is to help develop the game of football in Canada, and I truly believe that we’re doing that the right way,” he said. “I’ve had 35 different Canadian players play for me in the last five years, and they’re in an environment where they’re training, and they’re exposed to standards from Europe and around the world, and watching their development is just profound.

“I think it’s so very important that Canada remains open-minded and committed to the influence and importance of international student-athletes and players in our country and in our game of football… Unfortunately, I do feel there’s some coaches out there that want to try and put restrictions in that really, I think, would discriminate and be very archaic to the way the world needs to work right now.”

“My absolute priority is to recruit, retain, and support the best Canadian young male soccer players who deserve the opportunity to be in our program.”

Cape Breton University players, including Peter Schaale (no. 20) and Marcus Campanile (no. 21). (Photo: Vaughan Merchant)
Cape Breton University players, including Peter Schaale (no. 20) and Marcus Campanile (no. 21). (Photo: Vaughan Merchant)

“This is real… this pathway can happen”

In a way, the Canadian Premier League was a distraction at first in Cape Breton.

I was watching the players all of a sudden more interested in this new professional route than where they were currently, and the process that they needed to commit to to get there,” Morley admitted of the year leading up to the 2018 CPL-U SPORTS Draft.

I’ll be very, very honest and open with every potential recruit I talk to: if you’re looking to join us to try and take a shortcut to professional football, I have no interest in you.”

Peter Schaale to the rescue.

After playing so well for HFX Wanderers in the inaugural season, the defender returned to Cape Breton for a fourth year to finish his Business Administration degree (and chase another trophy, of course). With the captain’s return from the professional ranks, the rest of the squad gained some perspective on how to get to that level.

“Pete came in back from the season, and he really set the standard that he was playing at while he was away from us,” recalled Bent. “We all kind of followed his momentum, some of the practices that he was doing. You know, looking after our bodies, and trying to prepare for the hopeful call that you get before draft night.”

Added Morley: “When Peter came back, it demonstrated that the process is real and this pathway can happen if you trust it and you commit. Peter came back and fuelled that in the lads: ‘I’m happy to be back here, let’s get back to work.’ 

If we play great football as a team and we commit, you’ll be seen. So that year, the CPL wasn’t a distraction; it was a really healthy part of the season.” 

That 2019 Capers team stormed to another AUS championship, of course, before securing a bronze medal at nationals in Montreal. The next day, four players were drafted by CPL teams. 

“It’s rewarding, first and foremost, to watch the process,” Morley stated. “Peter was a great athlete when he joined us, but he didn’t necessarily see himself as a centre-back. He’s developed, he’s grown, he’s committed… Now to see him play in our province, and the crowd chanting his name, wow. What a reward, and what a story.

That’s the story that should be told in Canada, and one that every U SPORTS coach in this country should be proud of. I truly hope that this has a powerful impact on allowing us as Canadian university coaches to retain top Canadian talent.”

Seven Atlantic championships and five U SPORTS medals later, Morley is incredibly proud of the program he’s helped build in Cape Breton. So, too, are the players — all the Capers drafted by CPL teams have waxed lyrical about their time on the island.

From the outside, it’s remarkable how quickly Cape Breton has become a powerhouse in U SPORTS soccer. Take a closer look, though, and it’s not hard to see how passion has driven a meteoric rise.

“This is a chance to reunite players with the love of football,” Morley said. “And when we do it together, and I’m all in, and they’re all in, then the results are there for everybody to see.”