The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing students to learn online, but for student-athletes, it’s been a particularly weird year, especially for first-year players. Teams and athletes have had to adapt in order to keep playing.

In October, U SPORTS and the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association shut down all competition for the 2020-21 academic year. In response, the Mount Royal University Cougars men’s volleyball team tried to keep their schedule as close as possible to a regular week in the fall.

“We were so fortunate that we were cleared to start at the beginning of school,” says Cougars head coach Shawn Sky.

“Of course we weren’t able to play anyone else, so what we did was set up our weeks so that Fridays were always a scrimmage. By the end, we had the [players] in uniform, we were videotaping the games and keeping stats,” he says.

For Canada West volleyball teams, regular-season matchups are usually on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. Teams will use the week before to practice and prepare for their upcoming opponents before travelling or getting ready to host the visiting team. 

The conference didn’t fully announce the cancellation of the season until mid-October. So teams who played in both the fall and winter semesters spent September and the beginning of October practicing with the hope of a season in January. 

Cougars men’s volleyball head coach Shawn Sky has been impressed at how the three Mount Royal freshmen had adapted to university life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Video courtesy of Headliner.

“The first semester was fantastic,” says Sky. “But the second semester has come with a lot of challenges.”

For freshmen setter James Duerksen, the social aspect of being in his first year has been the biggest challenge. 

Duerksen moved to Calgary from Winnipeg and has had to adjust to a new level of volleyball and a new level of education all while moving to a new city during a pandemic. 

Luckily for Duerkson, he moved in with another first-year player on the Cougars, which has helped him navigate all the changes. 

Winnipeg native James Duerksen has had a lot of adjustments to make during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a first-year student-athlete, Duerksen has been able to lean on his teammates to adjust to the new city and the demands of being a student-athlete. Photo courtesy of James Duerksen

“Not being able to meet classmates and make friends that way has been pretty tough,” he says. “For me, it’s been nice to be a part of the team. Being around the team five days a week has helped me build relationships and get help that way.”

“Coming here was a big transition to make, just because you’re not being thrust into the community right away. But being on the team and having that support group has made that transition so much easier,” says Duerksen. 

Sky thinks that first-year student-athletes have an advantage over non-student-athlete first-years because of the ability to connect with teammates and get onto campus five days a week.

“The guys certainly didn’t get the same experience they normally would have,” he says. “But they got to connect with veterans on the team, they got to train every day so they’re very fortunate compared to first-year students who aren’t training on a varsity team.”

“I’ve also grown a lot because I’ve had to structure my life and stay disciplined to stay on top of school and volleyball.”

James duerksen, MRU men’s volleyball player

Duerksen adopted his coach’s glass-half-full perspective on the situation. Instead of seeing himself as disadvantaged for missing his first year of university volleyball, he thinks that it will serve him well going into the fall of 2021.

No student-athletes are losing any eligibility since there is no competition this year. This means Duerksen and his freshmen teammates will enter the 2021-22 regular season as first-year Canada West athletes while having a year of training and practicing with the Cougars. 

“As I was trying to handle everything at the beginning of the year, it was nice to have a gradual transition into university volleyball,” he says. “That allowed me to stay on top of everything and settle myself into Calgary and [Mount Royal University].”

Freshman setter James Duerksen setting the ball during a two-player practice. The Cougars have had to adjust their practice to meet government restrictions. Photo courtesy of James Duerksen

One advantage the Cougars may have when they and the rest of the Canada West can return to play is the continuity on their team. With only one fifth-year player and three freshmen, the Cougars currently only have one incoming recruit lined up for next season.

For Sky and this current crop of freshmen, one of their focuses has been the trio’s academics. Making the jump from high school to university can be tough for all students, but having to make that change while learning online has made the transition even more complex.

“It’s been pretty time consuming trying to figure out Blackboard [Mount Royal’s Learning Management System], organizing my Google Meets for all my classes and navigating my science labs,” says Duerksen.

“I’ve also grown a lot because I’ve had to structure my life and stay disciplined to stay on top of school and volleyball.”

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