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They all knew the news was coming, but it didn’t soften the blow.

Partway through the summer while the world watched COVID-19’s steady spread, players, coaches, and staff of the Vancouver Island University Mariners soccer and golf programs learned their national championships for 2020 were cancelled, along with all competitive play for the fall. Questions about training and possible provincial league play in January remained in the wake of the decision.

Griffin Douglas, a fifth-year student who played midfielder on VIU’s men’s soccer team said the news was expected, but he couldn’t help but feel the impact of the lost opportunity for him and his team to compete again at the national tournament. They nearly won it all last year, capturing silver. 

“When I first heard it, it was pretty devastating,” he said. 

Fifth-year soccer player Chloe Gummer and her third-year teammate Cara Dunlop echoed the sentiment. The women’s group also came up just short at their nationals in Quebec, losing in the finals.

“I think we had a good chance at winning it this year,” Gummer said. “So that makes it even more disappointing.”

VIU’s Interim Athletics Director, Danielle Hyde, shared the players’ sense of disappointment when she had to tell them their year would no longer feature its pinnacle.

The decision to cancel came from the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) on June 12, three months after the league was forced to call off its national championships for basketball. The Mariners women’s team was set to host the tournament. Hyde recalls watching as the news trickled in during the women’s volleyball nationals the week prior. 

“We started to see the effects of COVID almost hourly in restrictions being implemented at those championships with elimination of fans, [teams would] show up to play then [have to] leave.” 

Hyde said the lead-up to cancelling the women’s basketball tournament was a “whirlwind” in trying to adapt to the continuous changes. Hyde added, it quickly became clear the right decision was made, as “things had escalated.”

That rapid escalation is what forced the CCAA to create an emergency task force to determine if fall play was possible for sports such as soccer and golf. 

“Not understanding where we would be in the COVID world, it was decided that we couldn’t [play],” Hyde said. 

VIU has been approved to have athletes on campus for training, with facilities such as the weight room open to them and other students living in Nanaimo. Meanwhile, the Pacific Western Athletic Association (PACWEST) is attempting to put forward a modified schedule for the spring semester, depending on BC’s COVID-19 situation.

Mariners golf coach, Mike Hrabowych, is “taking [a potential spring season] at face value.” As for the fall, Hrabowych has submitted a training plan that follows all COVID-19 requirements and includes tryouts on September 19 and 20 to determine the fall roster. The hope is that a second tryout will be held in the spring. The coach noted that this type of “tournament-style” tryout can be challenging for players who haven’t experienced recent tournament play, and that “it’s very difficult for them to actually be able to get in that mindset.”

Kevin Lindo, head coach of the Mariners women’s soccer team, is “treating the fall as preseason.” Lindo says the focus will be on a training schedule under the Mariners, a gym program, and an even greater emphasis on club soccer play with Nanaimo United FC, among other clubs. 

“They will get competitive play each week. So, we’re going to use club play as a motivation and as a vehicle to propel players for our coming season,” Lindo said. 

The lack of clarity has been a struggle for all parties involved. The reality of COVID-19 is that answers are hard to get and hard to give. Hyde has maintained a line of communication with all of VIU’s coaches throughout the summer. 

“I’m trying to communicate what I know when I know it,” Hyde said. “It is extremely challenging. There are so many moving parts, so many questions and the feeling of wanting to give information but not having the information to give—it’s a tough position to be in.” 

Hyde praised the coaches for their patience, saying they understand “we’re all going through this for the first time and really just doing our best.”

“No one likes to not know,” Lindo said. He made it a priority over the summer to let players spend time with their families and not stress over the uncertainties. “We can’t keep asking individuals to put off their plans and hold off work schedules, so I made the call to tell the players to just go and enjoy themselves and we’ll pick up again in the fall. You have to remember that everybody has their own lives.”

Hrabowych notes the difficulties and feels for the students who are “all left in the dark.” Plans students may have had for the coming year are suddenly turned on their head. One of Hrabowych’s students was going to come back to VIU in the fall from his home in Quebec. Now, that’s impossible. He hopes to arrive for the spring season instead.

No one understands plans falling through like the fifth-year players. Many looked forward to one final ride with their teammates—a chance at redemption for some—only to have it all scrapped until a time when they are no longer able to participate.

Gummer heard the news with her room/teammate Harroop Malli, also in her final year. 

“We had gotten the text from our coach in our team group chat and we just kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘Oh. Okay.’ So, no more fun trips with our team and the team environment that you get, especially at nationals when there’s nervous energy—It’s just so much fun and we just knew we weren’t going to get that again.”

“[I] definitely realized that we are a very close-knit team,” Gummer said. I think a lot of other teams would be […] less close because of the circumstances, but we have a group chat we talk in every day, and we see one another. We’ve stayed really close and it’s nice to see there’s such a support system between us.” 

Creating a motivating environment is a difficult thing to do when it feels like there’s nothing to play for. 

“I’m going more the avoidance route and not really thinking about it, kind of in denial that there’s no season,” Gummer admitted.

The cancellation forced Douglas to throw out almost all his plans for the year because he has already graduated from his program. He was going to take a few extra classes to have one last shot at the gold medal. With nationals no longer possible, he doesn’t see a path forward through VIU. 

“Playing for VIU is a very big motivator in terms of school,” Douglas said. “It’s like a club and everyone looks out for each other […] not having that is tough. In my mind I’ve ended my career with VIU. So, I’ve come to terms with that.”

Students and coaches were quick to give their support to the graduates. 

“Fifth year is supposed to be so special, and we can’t really replicate that in any way, so that’s been kind of difficult,” Dunlop said. “We want to give them the best fifth year possible.”

She is keeping the fire lit for this year and beyond. “We’re going to be adaptable […] returning to soccer and I know we’ll be able to do it. Definitely, the goal [is] to make it back to nationals.”

Where there is hardship and struggle, there are inevitably lessons to be learned and characters to be strengthened.

Lindo acknowledged that, “[there’s] nothing we can do about them missing nationals,” but he still wanted “to give the players the best environment possible.”

Sometimes a shift in perspective is all that’s needed, Lindo said. 

“We’re very fortunate. We’ve been able to work, the university’s been very supportive. If no sports season goes ahead, it’ll be really tough, but we’ll come back stronger,” he added. “In these times, you kind of have to live for the moment. Whatever’s important to you […] cherish it.”

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