(Matthew Daigle/AQ)

After a gruelling off-season because of COVID-19, the St. Thomas University women’s volleyball team returned to practice.

Entering the Lady Beaverbrook Gym at the bottom of College Hill in Fredericton, fourth-year player Jenicca Jean is met with health screenings. Jean and the rest of the team are given thermometers to check their temperatures.

These health checks must happen before they step onto the court. Seats are spaced out across the gym to maintain social distancing as Jean laces up her shoes.

“It’s different, but we’re so happy to be back,” said Jean.

Though they’re having their first team practices since the pandemic, their season is still up in the air. At STU, all fall season sports are cancelled because of the pandemic, while the fate of winter sports remains undecided.

In Canada, U Sports cancelled the fall national championships this past summer. On Oct. 15, they announced the cancellation of the winter national championships.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped all university sports in North America. In the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association is in the middle of their division one football season while the basketball season will start in November.

Typically, university athletes juggle school, practices, games and long road trips. With seasons either cancelled or undecided, what are student-athletes doing with their time?

Season cancelled

Ravtej Singh, a Tommies’ men’s soccer player, said only one of his teammates is with him in Fredericton. This is an adjustment compared to the team being together all the time last year.

“We had [the] same classes, we’d hang out after practices, before practices, during practices,” said Singh. “This year has been so, so different … no one’s here.”

Singh is a second-year at STU, mostly playing wing. When New Brunswick shut down in the spring, Singh said all he could do was go on runs and workout at home.

“My first reaction [when the season cancelled] was ‘no, this can’t be happening,’” said Singh. “If I’m not going to be able to play, what will I do?”

Now, with some COVID-19 restrictions lifted, Singh played with a Fredericton summer-league team, the Picaroons. To stay ready for next season, Singh practices with the University of New Brunswick soccer team.

“You learn so many new things playing with other players,” said Singh. “I didn’t think we’d actually be able to play anything.”

Taking precautions

In March, STU closed in the middle of the national volleyball championships. But just in the nick of time, the tournament was able to play out, fanless. Mike Eagles, STU’s athletics director, said there was a lot of uncertainty concerning the upcoming sports season.

“It was a real privilege for us to finish that tournament,” said Eagles.

Eagles has been the athletics director for STU since 2008 and of his main tasks is overseeing varsity teams. He said because of remote learning, fewer athletes are in Fredericton. But Eagles is working to accommodate them and ensure coaches can still run their programs.

He said the virus’ impact on sports can be seen by looking at the recent outbreaks in New Brunswick. The Moncton and Campbellton areas are experiencing outbreaks, which have resulted in three deaths so far.

“Sports in the Moncton area and up north have been cancelled,” said Eagles. “We’re always at risk of that.”

Back to the grind

Jenicca Jean is in her senior year with the Tommies. She is the team’s libero and specializes in defense. Jean wears a different-coloured jersey than the rest of the team position’s because of her responsibility and she can’t block or attack when the ball is above the net.

Jean is honouring in criminology and majoring in psychology. Even with fewer volleyball commitments over the summer and the first month of the semester, she still kept herself busy. Jean said she filled her time finishing her research assistant job and working in her hometown in Nackawic at Big Axe Brewery.

In preparation for the possible start of the season, Jean said the team was in constant communication with each other. Over the summer, she said some of the team was able to get together to workout and even played beach volleyball together.

Jean said the team is looking to be able to play out the season in January, if the ACAA decides to let them do so. Due to COVID-19, student-athletes won’t lose a year of their five-year ACAA eligibility if there’s no season. Being a senior on the team and set to graduate from STU in the spring, this could be her last season playing for the Tommies.

“The coach had told me I was going to be the main libero … I was really looking forward to that,” said Jean.

“It’s disappointing, but I am happy we can practice. Just being back on the court was so nice.”