Ontario University Athletics (OUA) recently announced its approved structures for league-based sports and open championships in the upcoming 2021-22 season. The plan has been developed in an effort to return to varsity sport in the fall, but also prioritize the health and safety of all stakeholders.
In tandem with Ontario’s three-stage reopening plan and provincial health guidelines, the OUA will be monitoring the modified sports structures and making adjustments if needed in the coming months.
So far, this is the lineup for fall sports and schedules:
- Football season and full schedule with a start date of September 18
- Soccer season and full schedule for men’s, women’s with a start date of September 22
- Field hockey and full schedule with a start date of September 24
- Rugby season and full schedule for men’s, women’s with a start date of September 24
The terms to describe these announcements sweeping across the York Lions’ den are “excitement” and “relief” — from coaches to athletes, Lions and Lionesses are hungry for the return to competition.
Carmine Isacco, master coach of York’s soccer program overseeing both the men’s and women’s teams, explains that what made the absence of sports difficult was that it suddenly became a negative part of health. “It’s kind of an oxymoron,” he adds.
Kalifornia Mitchell, fourth-year children’s studies student and women’s soccer midfielder, echoes Isacco’s sentiments about the struggle of being an athlete during a pandemic.
“I missed playing — I missed my safe space, my home away from home,” Mitchell says. “It became a mental game, where I had to push myself to stay motivated and have faith. Sports are not just sports, they’re a lifestyle.”
“But what’s important, regardless of where we were, is where we’re at right now. I think getting back to it will be a beautiful coming together of communities,” states Isacco.
The modified structures for league-based sports will now include reducing the number of games in a season and increasing the number of divisions in a sport — not that this will decrease a Lions’ big appetite.
“Because of this, and with new opponents, I think it’s going to be a bit more challenging,” says JonAlec Duenas, third-year sociology student and left winger for men’s soccer. “We will have to make sure we come out ready to compete in order to win our new conference.”
Recently moved to the East division on June 30, the Lions’ soccer program is especially eager to ignite some new rivalries — the women’s team particularly, considering they are coming off an OUA championship from 2019.
Despite the shorter season, Vanessa Salvaggio, fourth-year psychology student and midfielder for the women’s soccer team, says she’s grateful to be able to play in her final year of university, and with the challenge of competing against new teams in their division.
Jotam Chouhan, fourth-year kinesiology and health science student and women’s soccer midfielder, anticipates an interesting season.
“Sports play such a crucial part in every athlete’s identity and having that taken away for a year was difficult. I just can’t wait to get back on the field and create more memories that will last a lifetime,” Chouhan says.
Daniel Church, head coach of the Lions women’s hockey team, states that there was planning behind the scenes prior to OUA’s official announcement. Conversations among administrators, coaches, and medical staff took place on potentially returning to sport in the fall so that student-athletes weren’t unprepared.
“Because of club soccer and all the coaches’ involvement, we’re kind of pioneers in health and return-to-play protocols, so we were a big part of those conversations,” adds Isacco.
True to nature, the Lions were hunting game during this lengthy storm. With coaches’ guidance, athletes continued training during this long off season and training camps were forced to get creative, especially with sports that initiate contact and proximity.
Head Coach for women’s volleyball Jennifer Neilson states that their “dedicated group of strong women” value connection and so they trained three to four days a week — including Zoom workouts run by strength and conditioning coaches — while also meeting online for team-building activities.
“We’ve encouraged them to touch a ball if they’ve had an opportunity,” explains Neilson. “Volleyball exercises can be done against a wall or they can do a bit of ball control in the backyard with a sibling.”
The pride have also been partaking in decentralized training where “outside the box” brainstorming came handy for staying fit. Adapted methods, for example, in hockey provided a dynamic way of training outside and/or at home, despite not being able to get on the ice.
“When you are in an explosive power sport like hockey and all of a sudden you can’t get into a gym to lift weights, you gotta get creative. Our strength and conditioning coaches sent PVC piping to every student athlete and different strength bands so that they could do more isometric lifts and movements,” explains Church.
Some Lions have been training individually in accordance with public health protocols, including training in small group quadrants with no contact, or working out alone during the lockdowns.
“As one of the older players on the team this year I am ready and willing to put in the work for the best possible outcome of the team,” says Duenas.
Other athletes have been adding to their training by organizing small-group sessions outside, amongst their teammates on a field, or training with club teams.
“If everyone was staying busy and active, the overall competition will be great,” says Mitchell. “I believe the lost season will bring a fresh start and new opportunity to all teams.”
With this announcement comes the question of what students can expect for the upcoming season. According to the athletics department and coaches, however, nothing has been set in stone just yet.
The ability to have bleachers and stadiums filled with 3,500 people during Frosh week remains unclear, although individual institutions will be making those decisions in accordance with the province’s health guidelines.
“We certainly would like to have our supporters, family, and friends come to watch our games,” says Church. “We can see that progression in professional sport right now where more fans are being able to go to live sporting events, so I think we’re on the right path.”
OUA TV hosts some of York’s home games, should students wish to support the Lions emblem remotely. G1 level sports games (basketball, football, hockey) are required to be streamed — whereas G2 (i.e. volleyball, rugby, soccer) and G3 (i.e. baseball, tennis) are not required, but the fate of their feature on OUA TV to accommodate virtual spectatorship is currently unknown.
Additionally, should students opt-out of a season, coaches have expressed providing support and guidance to those athletes. Citing the importance of respecting students’ wishes, as well as understanding concerns about physical and mental health, coaches state that they want both athletes and teams to feel safe.
Neilson explains that there are options players can navigate with their coaches to avoid an exit from sport, though it’s important to “be patient with different people’s comfort levels.”
Varying from situation to situation, a few options may include redshirting for the year (deferring to work on skills and eligibility), taking a relief year, reduced training loads, or partial involvement in a season such as avoiding travel.
Other logistics yet to be determined — including changes to training, safety protocols, and travel precautions — are currently in the works.
Lions coaches stress the importance of rigid and proactive measures including monitoring and pre-screening for COVID-19 signs and symptoms before training, minimizing the amount of crossover play within a venue, reducing the amount of overnight trips, following public health guidelines, being cognizant of contact, as well as masking and cleanliness.
“You’re not going to be playing multiple teams in a weekend, you’re only going to be playing one team per weekend so if there is a case that it only impacts two teams as opposed to four,” says Church.
Methods for COVID-19 testing on varsity athletes is another item tentatively in the works. Unlike major professional leagues that have millions of dollars at their disposal, daily or weekly testing provided by the university for each athlete has been cited as cost prohibitive.
The Lions’ medical team led by Andrea Prieur, including athletic therapists, are discussing the safety of vaccinations with players and debunking myths. Coaches are encouraging the York community to keep each other safe and get vaccinated to expedite the return to normal.
The Lions’ medical staff are also currently working on protocols for managing positive COVID-19 cases for athletes in today’s climate. But coaches conjecture a number of procedures that could possibly take place.
“One would be isolating the person who is suspected of having COVID-19 and then testing them to confirm their case,” says Church. “If it’s positive, then you have to confirm whether it is mild or severe.
“In a mild case, you may be out of sport for two to four weeks. With a more severe case, you may be out of sport for up to three months depending on its severity. But the science on that is evolving everyday.
“I think what’s most important in terms of safety is that return to sport after — there’s still not a lot known about the after effects of having COVID-19 for athletes, such as lung-related issues,” concludes Church.
Isacco also expresses the importance of quarantining, potentially suspending a team’s competition or having sit-outs, if necessary. “If you look at what they’re doing at the European soccer championships and the MLS, that individual gets quarantined and everyone else gets tested. Then they kind of let the negative cases continue playing,” he adds.
Definitive details on health and safety protocols for varsity athletes are currently pending and individual to each post-secondary institution. Protocols will also be conditional on Ontario’s public health guidelines and reopening plans.
“I think the value of sports — whether it’s the three-year-olds on the field all the way to the adults that play on the Sunday league and have beers after — is immense. It’s important to embrace what sports do and how they bring communities together. It’s time to celebrate what we took advantage of for so long and the pandemic made us understand that,” says Isacco.
And this we know — York athletes have been starved of play, but they are ready to compete. After all, if a lion’s roar can be heard from miles away, imagine the reassembly of a pride.
Competitors beware, the York Lions are coming.
Jennifer Myers, York Lions’ executive director of athletics and recreation, was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.