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University sports a no-go for fall of 2020

"We're not closing down varsity athletics forever."

That may well be true, but the words of Laurentian University Athletic Director Peter Hellstrom are likely of little comfort to all of the student athletes, both local and otherwise, who will be affected by the U Sports decision to cancel all fall varsity sport competition in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An OUA athlete in hockey back in his day, Hellstrom fully understands the disappointment as news of the cancellations circulated earlier this week. "This news is difficult for all of us who have been driven by sport our entire lives," he stated, in a university-issued release.

"Even though it is the right decision to ensure the health and safety of all of our student-athletes, coaches and stakeholders, it doesn't make it any easier. Hopefully we will be able to have some kind of sport offering in the new year, but only time will tell."

And for as much as it is the sport itself that will be missed, Hellstrom acknowledged the larger picture in play. "The education is the first and foremost reason that we are here, but it's also about the overall post-secondary experience for a lot of young men and women," he said, reached by phone hours after the release was issued.

"It's the first time living on their own, enjoying the overall university experience, whether that be varsity sports, the drama club, intramural sports, even the residence experience. It's about all of that, and I hope that we never lose that, because I think it is all valuable experience for the young adults that are growing up today."

At the home of the Voyageurs, the sports that will have a one-year hiatus, in terms of competition, include soccer, cross-country, baseball and lacrosse, though the latter compete in a non OUA-sanctioned league, under the auspices of CUFLA (Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association).

Former L.U. soccer star and long-time men's coach Carlo Castrechino was not caught the least bit off-guard by the official decision this week. "Actually, about a week into it, when we were sent home in March, I thought this might be a possibility," he said.

"I was kind of ready for this, just had a feeling that this was coming. I would have been more surprised if we were going to have a soccer season - at least, that's how I felt."

While most folks understand the rationale behind the cancellations, some have questioned whether early June might have been a bit premature to put the kibosh of competitive seasons that do not even begin until the end of August. Castrechino, for one, is not in this camp.

"I think you have to make a broad decision early, for families to be prepared," he said. "They didn't want to wait until August and have everyone scramble to get up here. I kind of like that the decision has been made now and not have us hanging around all summer, waiting."

"I would rather know now, so that I can prepare."

That said, exactly what his team might look like to start the 2021 season is clearly a huge question mark. "I really feel for the kids, especially the ones who would be coming back for a fifth (and final) year," said Castrechino. "I feel that my two will probably not come back, though no one has definitely decided yet."

"As a player, I know for me, I would have wanted to play. I wouldn't have wanted to go out this way. But every family is different, every situation is different."

Hellstrom concurs, 100%.

"I think that is the unknow right now, who will come back and who will not come back," he said. "It will be interesting to see exactly what happens when we get to the point where we are allowed to train. It's an individualized question, for sure."

And one in which answers will emerge, quite gradually, for league officials, coaches and players alike. "Right now, we have been told that it's up to the individual institution to decide on their return to train programming, based on obviously provincial and public health guidelines," said Hellstrom.

"We are working on a return to train program and policies and guidelines, to hopefully move towards something in the summer or fall. Just because we're not competing, doesn't mean that we are going away forever."

In addition to the cancellation of all fall sport competitions, the U Sports decision also stated that the winter two-semester sports (hockey, baskeball, volleyball, swimming, etc...) will also not be allowed to host any games, tournaments, meets and such until January of 2021, at the earliest.

Greater Sudbury Soccer Club