On the 25th of this month, Merritt’s Kelly Donaldson will be making her way to the Lower Mainland to take part in the 15th annual induction ceremony into the Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame.
Donaldson and the rest of her 1997 Burnaby Blast women’s soccer team will be honoured for their incredible run of success that culminated in a Canadian championship in Montreal in October of that year — the only women’s national title ever won by a U19 team from B.C.
Donaldson, who has called the Nicola Valley her home since 2008, was born and raised in North Vancouver. She began playing youth soccer at the age of nine, despite her parent’s reservations.
“They weren’t too thrilled, because I was an asthmatic and blind as a bat,” Donaldson said with a laugh. “I don’t think my dad got out of the car the first few months of me playing. Then things turned around. I grew and added some size and weight, which eventually developed into a stride.”
Donaldson’s first couple of years with ‘the beautiful game’ were spent playing in-house with the local North Shore Association, but by age 12 she was making select squads that competed in a metro league against other associations. Soccer had very quickly become her passion and centre midfield her position.
“I also played basketball when I was young,” Donaldson said, “but in Grade 10 I sort of made a decision that soccer would be my sport.”
Following successful youth and high school soccer careers, Donaldson earned a scholarship to play for Simon Fraser University. Her very first year, the Clan won a national NAIA title in San Antonio, Texas.
“I was one of four rookies on a team that had nine seniors. It was a tough team.”
Once the university soccer season was over in the fall, Donaldson joined the Burnaby Blast U19 team because her own North Shore Association wasn’t fielding a team in that age group. It was an eclectic squad comprised primarily of players from high school, college and university teams throughout Greater Vancouver.
Marty Allen, the manager of the Blast at that time, said that Donaldson was a welcome addition to the team.
“Kelly was a great competitor,” he said. “My daughter, Meghan, and Kelly had played against each other since U12. Kelly was always one of those kids that you wished played for you, not against you.”
The U19 Blast won their third consecutive Coastal title in February of that year, beating Vancouver in the final.
“Back then, it was a single-knockout format like the FA Cup in England,” Allen explained. “Very tough.”
The Blast went on to claim the provincial B.C. Cup at a four-team tournament in Victoria in July, and earned a spot at Nationals later in the year.
“It was a really long haul,” said Allen. “We had finished our last league game at the end of February, and the Nationals weren’t until the Thanksgiving weekend in October.
“By the fall, the girls on the Blast team were completely dispersed. Some were playing on college and university teams, others in women’s leagues. We had the odd practice or two and an occasional exhibition game.”
That fall, Donaldson had transferred to Capilano College in North Vancouver, and was playing for the Blues. Despite a busy college schedule, Donaldson and a couple of her Cap teammates were allowed to rejoin the Blast for a shot at the Canadian title.
“Our coach at Cap College, Doug Abercrombie, was amazing,” said Donaldson. “One of my favorite human beings on earth. To him, having us play [at Nationals] was a benefit. His players were getting this tremendous opportunity to play at a very high level.”
Eight teams from across the country converged on Brossard, Quebec (a suburb of Montreal) for the 1997 national championships. The Blast won their pool, defeating Quebec 3-0 in a crucial third and final round-robin game.
They then went on to defeat Ontario 2-1 in the gold-medal match. Donaldson’s Cap teammate and long-time friend, Diana Artuso, scored the game winner.
Donaldson’s soccer season was far from over, however. Three weeks later, she was back in Quebec with her Capilano Blues team at the national college finals. Favoured to win, the Blues were upset 1-0 by John Abbott College in the championship game. It was a loss that Donaldson remembers vividly.
“I went down with an injury 20 minutes into the game and that was it for me,” she said. “We gave up one bad goal and it was over.”
Despite the loss, Donaldson and Artuso were both chosen to the all-tournament team at Nationals, and to the all-Canadian college team for that year.
Donaldson and the Blues would have to wait 12 months to gain their revenge, but in the fall of 1998, they defeated the host University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops 3-1 to claim the national title that had eluded them the year before. Donaldson and Artuso were again chosen to the all-tournament and all-Canadian college teams.
Following two years at Capilano College, Donaldson moved on to play two years with the UBC Thunderbirds.
“Things didn’t go as well as I had hoped,” she said. “We didn’t make CIS Nationals either year.”
After earning her degree from UBC, Donaldson played a couple of years of women’s premier league soccer in the Lower Mainland. Her Burnaby Canadians squad won Nationals in 2000.
In 2002, Donaldson and her husband, Mark Nendick, moved to St. Albert outside of Edmonton.
“Although I was only 23, I sort of thought that I’d done it all as far as soccer goes, and my career wasn’t going to go any further. Mark and I decided we were getting out of Dodge, and I was ready to move on with my life.”
Donaldson played some soccer during their five years in Alberta, and for two more years when the couple moved to Kamloops and then to the Nicola Valley.
“In the end, it just became too much. I’d be hauling kids to the soccer field, and basically asking people I didn’t really know to keep an eye on them, and not getting home until 10 p.m.”
“It’s my way of giving back. I think back and can’t believe the hours that parents and volunteers put in for us when I was young. Now, it’s my turn.”
Donaldson and her family have settled into Merritt famously.
“The Nicola Valley has been good to us,” she said. “We have a very comfortable lifestyle. We feel very connected, and there’s a lot of benefits to raising your children in a small town.”
While Donaldson’s playing days are over, her connection to soccer isn’t. She is a hard-working volunteer with the Merritt Youth Soccer Association — as an on-field coach, as the coaching co-ordinator, and this year as the vice-president of the MYSA.
“It’s my way of giving back,” she said. “I think back and can’t believe the hours that parents and volunteers put in for us when I was young. Now, it’s my turn.”
This past summer, Donaldson had a chance to reconnect with her soccer roots in the Lower Mainland. As part of the build-up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup, she traveled to Vancouver on May 23 to take part in a one-day ‘Live Your Goals’ festival.
The event attracted over 200 female youth players from across B.C. The 8 to12-year-olds participated in a broad range of activities led by Donaldson and other female coaches from around the province.
“It was another opportunity to contribute, to be a role model and a mentor for another generation of young female players,” Donaldson said. “I think that it’s really important that women stay involved in the sport and advocate for a level playing field.”
Later this month, Donaldson will get yet another chance to re-connect and reflect on her soccer past when her 1997 team is honoured for its outstanding achievements. Sounds like it’s going to be a Blast!