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COVID-19: Young athletes scrambling for scholarships, opportunities amid pandemic

‘They lost their whole Grade 12 year’ says Semiahmoo basketball coach Allison McNeill
Longtime basketball coach Allison McNeill is worried that the COVID-19 pandemic will adversely affect high-school athletes with university athletic aspirations. (Garrett James/Langley Events Centre photo)

This is the first in a three-part series examining how young athletes – as well as coaches and parents – have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, and what youth sports may look like moving forward.

Allison McNeill is worried about the late bloomers.

The end-of-the-bench basketball player who unlocks some untapped potential after hitting a summertime growth spurt between Grades 11 and 12; or the student-athlete who decides to buckle down and focus all their energy on soccer or rugby or football in their senior year, with an eye towards playing at the post-secondary level; or even the casual athlete who discovers a love for a sport late in their high-school years and just wants a chance to play.

When the buzzer sounds on the COVID-19 pandemic and a final tally is taken on what athletes have lost, these are the people McNeill – a South Surrey resident and longtime hoops coach with Simon Fraser University and the Canadian national women’s team – fears may get overlooked, especially those who hoped to secure an athletic scholarship, but instead saw their senior seasons cancelled.

“Generally speaking, it hasn’t given those kids – the late developers, those kids who’ve been working really hard on their games – the chance to be seen by anyone,” said McNeill, now a coach with Semiahmoo Secondary’s senior girls basketball team, winners of the last two provincial championships.

“And that’s a bit of a shame. They lost the summer going into their Grade 12 year and then they lost their whole Grade 12 year.”

So far, all high-school sports have had their seasons cancelled, with only practices being held under strict COVID-19 protocols.

• READ ALSO: Semiahmoo Secondary holds signing-day ceremony for three NCAA-bound stars

McNeill’s Semiahmoo team boasts three NCAA-bound players – an unprecedented number for a B.C. team – in Tara Wallack, Izzy Forsyth and Deja Lee, and all three managed to visit universities and meet their future coaches last spring, sneaking in just under the wire before COVID-19 took hold.

But not every player with designs on post-secondary athletics is so lucky, McNeill notes.

“Some kids, they just make late decisions. Maybe they love their sport but they’re not sure if they can handle both the athletic and academic (responsibilities) and then they make that decision, quite often in their Grade 12 year, so this has hurt some kids, definitely.

Semiahmoo Grade 12 basketball player Joel Aisenstat, told Peace Arch News that the cancelled season has likely caused a few student-athletes to drop sports altogether.

“Coming out of last year’s season, I think there were more of us who were looking at post-secondary basketball, but with the current situation, more of us are leaning towards just focusing on our academics now,” he said.

Semiahmoo Totems basketball players Joel Aisenstat and Tajin Rai are among a number of high-school athletes wondering what their post-secondary sports future may look like. (Contributed photo)
Earl Marriott Secondary Grade 12 student Lauren Johnson, who will play volleyball next year at McGill University, said that vying for a scholarship during a pandemic was not exactly an anxiety-free endeavour.

With scouts unable to see her play, Johnson said she had to connect with coaches herself, sending them video clips of her in action.

“I can imagine for others who didn’t (have video), it would have been really challenging to even email coaches, because they have no way to evaluate you,” she said. “I didn’t know what to say, who to contact – it was really intimidating.”

After not playing at all last spring, as per provincial rules, Johnson said it was also frustrating to see that her game was not up to her standards upon her return to the court for practices with her club team in the summer.

“My skills weren’t up to where they were before, and I was angry about it. I wanted to be better but I just hadn’t been able to play. It was all just very frustrating,” she said.

“I get to look forward to next year, but it’s still disheartening that I can’t go out and do what I love.”

Scholarship pressure is different from sport to sport. Junior hockey players, for example, can play until they’re 20, as opposed to high-school sports, in which players are done at 17 or 18 years old.

That two-year cushion is why Cam Newson, 18, hasn’t felt the clock ticking down as he pursues an NCAA scholarship.

The Semiahmoo Peninsula native played last year in the BC Hockey League with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs. And though he’s currently in the middle of what may become a lost season – the BCHL has pushed its start date forward a few times since December – he hasn’t had to scramble, knowing that he still has two years of junior-hockey eligibility left.

“Right now it’s not something I’ve been focusing on. I’m just focusing on getting better,” he said. “But at the start of January, when we knew we wouldn’t be playing that month, all our 20-year-old players left to go play in the U.S. and try to get their scholarships.

Tajin Rai – who, like Aisenstat, is a member of Semiahmoo’s senior boys basketball team – thinks the lack of a 2020-21 season could affect the entire scholarship process.

“If we were playing, you’d definitely get a lot more looks from scouts, and maybe offers, but now it’s a little bit of a different path,” he said. “You can still train, but I think there will be a lot more universities holding tryouts or setting up (individual) workouts. I think that kind of forces you to make a decision sooner about whether you want to keep playing.”

An exodus of young people from athletics could have far-reaching effects, McNeill said.

“If you’re a fringe (post-secondary player), you do probably have to just focus on school and get on with it. That will hurt the system in the long run because maybe those kids would’ve continued on and become coaches, or stayed involved (in other ways). And now, they’re just out of sports.

“They may come back, but there are no guarantees.”

Next week: Part 2 of the Playing Through a Pandemic series will focus on how COVID-19 has affected the mental and physical health of young athletes.

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