COVID cans basketball season but T-wolves plan to stay busy

Tyrell Laing says he’s in the best shape of his life.

Pity he won’t get to show that this year in a league game.

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That became official Thursday night when the Canada West Conference announced its decision to cancel its second term seasons due to safety concerns brought on by the pandemic.  

“You train so hard to compete in games and to have that taken away is just disappointing,” said Laing, who averaged 21.9 points per game in a 20-game season as the Canada West scoring champion in 2019-20. “That’s where you test your skills against opponents. We’re going to scrimmage and practice and have fun in those settings but it’s never the same.

“The NBA was able to make it work and obviously we don’t have the same resources to protect ourselves and it just fell through. It’s super-tough.”

The move to cancel follows closely on the heels of U Sports, the national organization for university sports, deciding not to stage national championships in men's and women's basketball, volleyball, hockey, and wrestling, as well as women's rugby 7s.

UNBC men’s basketball head coach Todd Jordan said he and his players were already prepared for what came down on Thursday, when, in early August, Canada West scrubbed the seasons of its first-term sports  -football, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s rugby 15s, and women’s field hockey.

“Just getting it yesterday wasn’t a shock,” said Jordan. “It’s a little different than what our soccer teams went through when it was more of an immediate shock. Our mourning period actually happened quite a while ago. But it does make it official and it does mean we can solidify our plans about what our training is going to look over the next few months.”

Sergey Shchepotkin said his UNBC women’s basketball team held out slim hopes the season would happen, right up until the final nail was hammered in.

“Everybody was ready for this and everybody understands the situation in the world,” said Shchepotkin. “We understand it’s not only is, the whole world is suffering from this. Unfortunately we won’t have a season but we feel it is the right decision.”

Both UNBC basketball teams, as well as the two soccer teams, have been training full-time since before the school year began, just as they would in any other season. What’s different this time is there will be no games or titles to play for.

Some Canada West teams in Vancouver and Vancouver Island who are in close proximity to each other started playing exhibition games against each other last week. That option is not available to UNBC, whose closest opponents are a six-hour drive away in Kamloops. Provincial health rules allow the players to scrimmage five-on-five and the coaches hope to eventually engage in exhibition games against their geographically closest rivals – Thompson Rivers University WolfPack in Kamloops and the UBC-Okanagan Heat of Kelowna.

“We have to be real careful about how we’re doing it and we’re going to put the kids’ safety first, that’s the biggest thing,” said Jordan.

The women’s basketball team was shaping up to be one of the best Shchepotkin has ever in his eight seasons as head coach, with six-foot-two forwards Svetlana Boykova and Laura Garmendia Garcia having put season-long knee injuries behind them and the addition of a couple more prized recruits. Now he’ll have to wait a year to see if the T-wolves live up to that promise.

“I was excited about this team, I had big expectations but again we’ll try it keep it for next year,” Shchepotkin said.

Between two-hour court practices and weight room training sessions, Shchepotkin says his players are working out together nine times a week. The team is not allowed to travel overnight, which makes exhibition games a huge challenge.

“I hope that we can get permission for our plan to travel overnight and then we can have more games,” he said. “Right now we’re focused on working on small details but it’s probably less interesting for the girls. For me as a coach it give me a chance to work on the small things I didn’t have a chance to earlier, which is good. I need to be more creative to keep the girls interested. I want them to be excited about practice, we don’t want them to be bored.”

The pandemic has complicated the coaches’ job as the primary recruiters of new players. There are no high school games being played, travel within the province and to other provinces to see players in action is being discouraged, and that makes coaches more reliant on club basketball programs and referrals from other coaches who can vouch for the skills of their own athletes.

“On both ends there’s a ton of challenges,” Jordan said. “It’s tough on the kids because a lot of kids come a long way from Grade 11 to 12, that is a huge developmental year for those guys. A guy who looked good as a Grade 11 student, after a year-and-a half off, you don’t know what that’s going to look like.

“If this was a typical year we’d have three fifth-year guys we know for sure would be leaving at the end of the season and that would open up more opportunity within our team as well. We’ll continue to have those discussions with kids across the country and it’s going to be weird because it is going to be harder to evaluate because a lot of those guys won’t be playing as many games or any high school games during the year.”

It’s not all doom and gloom for the players – the lost season won’t cost them a year of eligibility. Laing is one of three fifth-year players on the T-wolves men’s basketball team, along with returning guard Vova Pluzhnikov and Payton Tirrell, who transferred to UNBC from Grande Prairie Regional College for his final season of eligibility. On the women’s team, forwards Madison Landry and Emma vanBruinessen are the senior players.

Laing was already planning on coming back to UNBC in the fall of 2021 to finish off his studies in community development. Now, with the deferred season, he can return as a student-athlete and retain his tuition scholarship for next year.

“I’ll be back next year, it won’t burn any eligibility,” said Laing. “So me and Vova will still be eligible to play out our fifth year next year. It’s essentially like this year has never happened.”

Assuming most of the players do come back next year Jordan said the T-wolves will likely only have a two or three positions to fill for 2021. They were one of the younger teams in the league last year and likely will be next season as well. Jordan said the fact the team is limited to mostly practices and scrimmages won’t hurt the long-term development of players like forward Fareed Shittu, who set team rookie records for most points, rebounds, blocks and assists as a first year player last season.

“He’s a hard-working guy and you put another year behind him, in some ways that’s the silver lining of it,” said Jordan. “You can address some of the things guys need to work on and down the road it might have a big impact in helping us.”

Laing, a Prince George Secondary School graduate, returned to his studies in September. All his courses are taught online and he longs for the return of student life on campus.

“The university experience isn’t the same,” he said. “Just the interactions every day, listening to your professor - now you’re looking at a screen for however many hours a day. I bought some glasses because I thought my eyes were getting strained from staring at a screen all day. It’s weird times.”


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