The season was over before it began for the University of Manitoba Bisons football team as COVID-19 protocols cancelled games for the team.
The uncertainty around the pandemic prompted U Sports, the governing body for university sports in Canada, to cancel six of its fall championships, including the historic Vanier Cup.
Teams continue to train and practice but now, with the province of Manitoba implementing some of the strictest pandemic protocols in the country, teams like the Bisons have had to stop in-person training.
Head coach Brian Dobie said he has never dealt with a season quite like this. Games were cancelled early in the season and now he’s not even able to practice with his 70-man squad.
“It’s going to be a tough winter,” he said. “I can’t promise my guys anything. I can tell them what we are hoping for, but I can’t promise them anything.”
For Dobie, who has been coaching for 46 years, this is among the toughest challenges he’s ever faced as a coach. The restrictions have made it harder for his athletes to keep building team chemistry.
“They can’t go into the locker room. We literally have one of the best locker rooms in the country of Canada, university or pro. It’s such a great place to be in for all of us but we can’t. The camaraderie and the sportsmanship that they built through training and grinding and pushing each other in the weight room is out the window,” he said.
It’s one thing to manage relationships and team dynamics, quite another to keep the squad in shape.
That’s Cole Scheller’s job. As the team’s trainer, he has had to find new ways to keep the players fit and motivated.
“There’s no textbook on how to deal with a pandemic. No one in this industry anywhere globally has had any experience with this type of stuff,” Scheller said.
He has allowed players to borrow team equipment to use at home to stay in shape. Players can pick up dumbbells and exercise balls for home workouts, which allows them to focus on functional movements such as air squats, push-ups, and core training. But it’s going to be tough to remain competitive.
“Everybody is feeling depressed and really feeling down, you feel like you’re losing a step,” said Bison player Tristan Francis. “The biggest impact is not being able to compete with the team and doing things individually. It just doesn’t feel the same.”
The Bisons’ defensive lineman said the team is a close group and he hopes they will be able to compete for the national championship next year.
“We’re such a close family and, for the most part, everybody is optimistic. Even though home workouts are a little challenging, I try to get it done so I don’t feel like I am losing my physical progress. I know we still have a chance at the Vanier Cup next year,” he said.
Coach Dobie is determined to stay competitive and keep his team together, but he knows it won’t be easy.
“When reality sets in, it’s tough,” he said. “Hopefully we will be playing next fall. But when we do, it will be almost two years since we played. And that’s a long, long grind.”