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Preparations underway for return of varsity sports at UofG

Athletic director 'very confident' of return to varsity action this fall
20210619 PURSUIT gryphons 01
The Guelph Gryphons celebrate their overtime goal that gave them the OUA men's hockey championship Queen's Cup trophy at the Gryphon Centre March 7, 2020. There hasn't been a Gryphon varsity sports game held on campus since.

After losing the entire 2020-2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Guelph Gryphons are gearing up for a return of university varsity sports this fall.

“I feel very confident that university sports will return in the fall,” University of Guelph athletic director Scott McRoberts said. “We obviously still have to wait on some of the protocols from the provincial sports organizations, mostly around sports that haven't been cleared yet and be allowed to do that, but with the Argos coming back and the CFL and other amateur sports organizations approved to move forward, it really does set the framework.”

The Argos are to hold training camp at the U of G’s Alumni Stadium next month in preparation for a return of play in the CFL in August while the Canadian Elite Basketball League teams, including the Guelph Nighthawks, started their training camps last weekend. The CEBL season is scheduled to start this week.

“I'm very confident we're going to have a fall season,” McRoberts said. “However, we don't determine what happens with this virus and I always leave that as a caveat, but we need to have a plan, we need to move forward and we have to understand what living with this virus is going to be like.”

While the Gryphons are anticipating jumping back into competitions with its 32 varsity teams, officials know the seasons will be different and there also won’t be a rush to begin. After all, players in the team sports haven’t had a competitive season for more than a year.

“We've been responsible at the OUA (Ontario University Athletics) in delaying the start of our season to allow everybody to come in, properly prepare themselves, get an additional vaccine or vaccinated if they haven't already and putting those things in place and giving ourselves an extra two, three, four weeks before we begin seasons just to make sure all those things are in place,” McRoberts said.”Schedules for the fall sports could be released in the next week or so and they’ll look a little different. The down time due to the shutdowns needed to get the pandemic under control have meant that university athletic squads took a gut punch financially.

“Obviously our budgets have taken a major hit during this,” McRoberts continued. “So it's really being responsible on how we do it and I really like the plan that we came up with as the OUA and athletic directors this year. There'll be some shortened games, but a lot of regional play. We don't need to drive on a bus to go somewhere for a game, stay overnight in a hotel, eat in restaurants and come back. We'll be having a lot shorter school bus trips and more of a regional-play strategy. It's both the safe thing to do for our athletes as well as the financially responsible thing to do for our program.”

Gryphon on-campus varsity sports came to an end March 7, 2020, in the most thrilling of ways when the Gryphons captured the Queen’s Cup as OUA men’s hockey champions with a victory in overtime at the Gryphon Centre. Less than a week later the team faced the reality of sports during a pandemic minutes after losing a quarter-final in the lone game played of the U Sports national university men’s hockey championship tournament, the University Cup, at Halifax.

“I'll never forget that,” McRoberts said. “After the men got off the ice after their disappointing loss, we were all called into a room. They cancelled and gave us basically 24 hours. It was Thursday night at 11 p.m. and they gave us 24 hours to get out of the hotel and get back home.

“That next morning was about finding a flight, getting the guys together. I'll never forget it. That morning we had breakfast as a team at the Bluenose (II) in Halifax. They were great. That was the last meal inside a restaurant with a group of people that I've had. I'll never forget that moment and the very rocky plane ride home and sitting in the airport not knowing what was ahead of us.”

The Gryphon men’s curling team competed in the bronze-medal match at the U Sports championships in Portage la Prairie, Man., two days after the hockey team headed for home. Since then, none of the Gryphon teams has played a game, although most held practices of one sort or another.

“We were lucky,” McRoberts said. “We were one of the few schools that practised from Labour Day until the shutdown at the beginning of April. We went all year with our teams training under the protocols. Sometimes they were teams training, sometimes they were groups of 10 depending on what the colour zone and the province mandated. But the best thing we were able to do was keep them active, keep them together and keep them training throughout the year with zero outbreaks and that's something that we're really, really proud of.”

In order to achieve that, the Gryphon athletic staff had to work together in harmony.

“I'm so lucky to have an amazing team,” McRoberts said. “All our different spaces at times had different protocols depending if it was a rink, a pool, a gym, a fitness centre. All of our coaches were COVID screeners -- COVID officers I call them – in the after-screen process. It was a complete team effort of the entire department and it was a rollercoaster of a year.

“There were so many changes, yet everybody had the can-do attitude regardless of how exhausted we all were and the personal challenges we experienced during this past year and a half with family and everything. It wasn't ‘This is my role, that's my role.’ Everybody pulled together and every time something changed, we found a way to do it and do it right and do it with the safety of our community and our students and our patrons first and foremost.

“The proudest thing I've seen over this last year and a half is how we all came together as a department. Knowing the challenge that was in front of us, everybody did their job regardless of what they were hired to do or what their role was to come here. We had head coaches cleaning equipment and monitoring the fitness centre at times. It also brought the opportunity for great connections, for our coaches to interact with students that weren't their own athletes and for students to interact with different members of our staff. There are relationships through those constant communications that were formed between staff and students from a mentorship standpoint that wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for this.

“The rollercoaster ride was so long and so many times we had to adjust and the ups and downs of it all for everybody, I'm just so proud that we did it and we did it right and we did it safe and we provided so many children and youth in the community and so many students the opportunity to get out and actually have some physical activity for their mental health and for their socialization. I'll really take that away from this last year and a half and I'm just so proud of every single person in our department who dropped anything of what they used to do and did it all for the department, the community and the students and came together.”