UNBC student-athletes rise above pandemic challenges

The pandemic has not been all bad for UNBC student Chris Ross.

It’s actually helped extend his basketball career.

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Usually, university athletes are limited to five years of eligibility to play on varsity teams but the rule changed when the threat of COVID-19 forced U Sports to cancel league play for the 2020-21 season. In sports where there is no U Sports national championship, athletes in those sports will not be charged a year of eligibility.

For Ross, a 20-year-old from North Vancouver who plays as a guard/forward in his third year with UNBC Timberwolves men’s basketball team, that extension means he can potentially remain a T-wolf for six seasons. The former accounting major switched to civil engineering this fall, which added a year to the time he will need to complete his undergraduate degree.

“The silver lining of the whole COVID situation is I was probably not going to play my last year of basketball anyways because I was going to be here for six years of school, but we’re not losing a year of eligibility so I’ll be playing basketball the whole time I’m up here.”

Like all post-secondary students Ross has had to get used to online learning, which became the new reality when the pandemic broke out in March. Although many of his classes have just 15 students, having to depend on Zoom connections and teleconferencing has its limitations.

“It’s tough, I’m in the civil program so a lot of the stuff we do out of textbooks is OK but the stuff you really miss are the labs and the hands-on stuff,” he said. “Some things that can be answered with a simple question and answer from a teacher, you might spend 15 minutes looking it up online. You have to email them and wait for their responses; it’s not the same as being in the classroom.”

Ross is among 28 varsity athletes at UNBC who made the U Sports Academic All-Canadian team and this was his second year on the list. Over two semesters he maintained a 3.92 grade-point average. A 4.0 GPA is equivalent to an A average, while 4.43 (the highest possible), is an A-plus average.

As much as the COVID outbreak helped Ross extend his athletic career, it has ruined it for graduating athletes who will complete their degrees this academic year and don’t plan to return to school in the fall. Ross’s brother is on the UBC rowing team and he won’t get to compete in his final season. Several graduating T-wolves are in the same boat, including soccer players Mara McCleary, Paige Payne, Sofia Jones, and basketball players Vova Pluzhnikov, Emma van Bruinessen and Madison Landry.

“My heart goes out to them,” said Loralyn Murdoch, UNBC’s director of athletics recreation. “It was terrible way to end off their school year last year (in March) and we’re still hopeful to get them some games and competitive opportunities going. These kids put a lot of time and effort into playing and representing UNBC and for them not to finish, closure is so important and it would be tough next for those who didn’t have that closure to move on from sport.

“Some of them are looking at post-degrees, so that might give us a glimmer of hope we’ll have them back. Academically, when you’re an Academic All-Canadian (3.67 GPA or higher), the chances of you having any schooling left are slim or none unless you’re doing a second degree or a post-degree.”

Landry, a 22-year-old health sciences student, posted a 4.19 GPA to make the Academic All-Canadian list for the fourth straight season. As the league’s third-highest scorer, Landry led the T-wolves to their first-ever winning record in Canada West and the injury-riddled T-wolves reeled off nine straight wins to advance to the second round of playoffs.

The Duchess Park graduate plans to attend medical school and hasn’t decided yet whether she will return to UNBC for the 2021-22 season. Varsity athletes must be enrolled in at least three classes each semester to qualify for U Sports competition.

“I’m looking for something to do,” said Landry. “I’m still really not sure.”

Learning health sciences practical skills online has been a challenge for students and has complicated the teaching process for instructors. In one of her classes, Landry had to interact with a cartoon avatar used to illustrate how to test the knee reflexes of a patient.

“It’s bizarre, but they found a way to do it all online and it’s working so far,” said Landry. “Some of the lectures are pre-recorded and some of them you have to tune in at a certain time. I didn’t realize how big of a social aspect (school) was until you don’t have to go every day and see all the people in your program. It’s really nice to have that group (of teammates) you get to see once a day at least and everyone is going through the same thing. It’s been really helpful.”

The T-wolves basketball teams traveled to Kamloops earlier this month to play exhibition games against other university and college teams. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops had planned to send its men’s and women’s teams to Prince George for games this past weekend that were cancelled by the provincial health office.

T-wolves soccer midfielder Kiana Swift, 20, is now in her third year in UNBC’s nursing program and she just made the cut for Academic All-Canadian team, posting a 3.67 GPA average in 2019-20. Now almost finished the fall term, Swift has an in-person lab to complete and then will be flying home to Victoria for Christmas on Dec. 6 to write two online open-book exams from her home.

“I honestly find in-person exams a bit easier because since they know we have our notes available to us the questions are a little bit more complicated, but we’ve all adapted and we’re in it together,” said Swift.

Like the basketball teams, UNBC’s soccer teams have been training together since early September on an amped-up practice schedule to make up for the lost games and they remain hopeful they will be playing exhibition games in the spring. Soccer head coaches Neil Sedgwick and Steve Simonson have been coming up from Victoria for 10 days a month during the fall term and when they aren’t there the assistant coaches lead the training sessions. On weekends, the players break into four groups to compete against each other in the gym for futsal or mini-tournaments in the fieldhouse to develop their skills. Having that daily interaction with her teammates throughout the pandemic has been a godsend for Swift.

“I’m grateful and privileged to still be training,” Swift said. “I don’t think I realized how much I appreciate soccer. When Neil told us the season was canceled I honestly went through a grieving period for a couple of weeks. Having no season, but still having my team, I’ve realized how much I love being up here and the community in Prince George, even though I haven’t been able to see many people, and how much support we’ve had from our athletics department going through this process.”

The 28 Academic All-Canadians is an all-time high for UNBC, up from 20 the previous year. In 2012-13, the year UNBC joined Canada West, there were 11 T-wolves who made the grade. The UNBC provost office presents an annual award to the team with the highest cumulative GPA. The women’s soccer team averaged 3.63, just ahead of women’s basketball (3.62) followed by men’s soccer (3.49) and men’s basketball (3.35).

“Overall, the GPA’s per team have never been higher, it’s come a long way and it says a lot about the supports we have in place at UNBC,” said Murdoch. “We have our peer tutors that are within their own team so they can tutor on the road or at home and they’re paid positions.”

U Sports Academic All-Canadians

Here’s the breakdown by team of UNBC’s 28 U Sports Academic All-Canadians for 2019-20:

Women’s soccer

Kiana Swift, Nursing

Claire Turner, Health Sciences

Kyra Wallace, Women’s Soccer, Nursing

Sofia Jones, Computer Science

Mara McCleary, Physics

Brooke Molby, Psychology & Education

Hallie Nystedt, Nursing

Paige Payne, Biomedical Studies

Mikaela Cadorette, Psychology

Kenzie Chilcott, General Studies

Women’s basketball

Madison Landry, Health Sciences

Rebecca Landry, General Sciences

Alina Shakirova, Psychology

Cevanna Carlson, First Nation Studies

Lucy Guan, Commerce

Anastasia Soltes, Environmental Studies

Men’s soccer

Daniel Zadravec, Business

Anthony Preston, Biochemistry

Aidan Way, Commerce

Mitchell Linley, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

Reid Adams, Biomedical Sciences

Johnathan Botelho, Health Sciences

Jonah Smith, Physiotherapy

Men’s basketball

Saje Gosal, Political Science

Spencer Ledoux, Business

Colburn Pearce, Commerce

Vova Pluzhnikov, Business

Chris Ross, Civil Engineering

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