BURNABY — Will B.C. university sports in 2020-21 go down in history as the lost season?
Or will the passing of time perhaps confirm a radically different conclusion, more akin to the season which taught all concerned a level of lessons more impactful than any could have imagined?
Spend a few moments chatting with Simon Fraser University men’s head soccer coach Clint Schneider, and by the end of it all, you wind up feeling thankful for the realization that the choice is actually your own.
On Monday, SFU players emerged from a six-week soccer slumber following exams and the holiday break by making a responsible return to the practice pitch atop Burnaby Mountain.
On the heels of a cancelled Great Northwest Athletic Conference season in the fall, the traditional NCAA Div. 2 powerhouse side seemed steadfastly resolute in believing that its every step, however socially distanced, was nonetheless an important part of their potential journey towards a national-title run in 2021, one which they would be making with not only a new team monicker, but within the new stadium complex at Terry Fox Field.
And to Schneider, there have been huge lessons to be learned by simply living in the moment, not only accepting the realities of the pandemic but safely learning the intangible lessons it has to teach.
“I think it would be naive to say it hasn’t been challenging, going without being able to play games… and any coach will tell you that social-distance training is very challenging,” said Schneider, who since taking the helm of the program in 2015 has compiled a 44-9-9 record in conference play. “But I don’t mean any of it in a negative way because ultimately, the health and well-being of our guys is paramount.”
The silver lining is in the details.
“I think that the guys are in a good place and one of the things that we have gotten out of all this is really an idea of who we are as a collective, and who we are as individuals,” continued Schneider, who has watched as his veteran captains Marcello Polisi and Rahid Rahiem have galvanized a roster which, by the start of the 2021 season, will welcome at least 11 new match debut-eligible players to the program from the past two recruiting cycles.
“It’s about their mentality,” he continued of the current players. “Is this going to be a pity party because they can’t hang out with friends and go to parties and clubs?
“This (pandemic) is a very extreme thing, a once-in-a-lifetime thing I think we’re all hopeful… but that’s the reality,” continued the coach. “So how do you cope? If the collective is coping well, and the individual is coping well, and say, we’re on the road getting ready to play a game…. then that seems very small, doesn’t it? That’s what we’re trying to get out of this thing. If you can get through this, if you can have a positive way about you, and if you can excel in the things you can excel in, when we get to the actual games… that’s the easy stuff, the fun stuff. And I love my group. Anyone can debate talent, but this group is right up there talent-wise and as far as their mentality and enjoyment of each other goes. Even with all of the parametres that have been put into place, they want to play for each other.”
And with that, Schneider is not afraid to envision a situation in the spring, where if every box of safety is checked amidst a potential flattening of the curve, and provincial regulations for just such competition begin to once again flash green, that his players could have the reward of playing some matches against local B.C. schools.
“If it comes to that, and we as coaches are hopeful that it does, my players know that is what we’re building towards… to playing games,” said Schneider of potential pod play. Last week, the GNAC management council approved institutional autonomy in scheduling for the spring 2021 seasons for men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball and cross country.
The mere presence of that dangling carrot, according to the coach, is so meaningful on a number of levels.
“I think it creates even more onus for our guys to do their part about being socially distanced and doing the right things off the pitch,” he begins. “When they go home, the onus is on them to make the right choices and to work together.”
Yet as we have also discovered over the past 10 months, hope is something that can be so easily crushed.
But like we said off the top, it’s all in the way you choose to see the situation.
“Hope is a really important part of being a human being, especially in times like these,” Schneider says, all too aware that the pandemic’s fluid nature could well sink any notion of spring friendlies.
“You have to be realistic with it,” he continues. “You have to be honest and transparent (with the players) about what that looks like and how we’re trying to get there, but also about the fact that it might not happen.
“But I want to work towards something positive. I have hope. The world is getting better. It might get worse before it gets better, but there is a pathway forward.”
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