Almost every Dalhousie University Tigers varsity team has begun their respective regular seasons or competition schedules, their first since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heading into the 2021-2022 season, student-athletes shared feelings of excitement and anticipation heading into their first competitions against other schools in months. However, the competitive feeling returned smoothly once the pucks dropped, basketballs were thrown up or starting guns went off.
“Last year, we didn’t get to play, so everyone’s more amped up this year,” Tigers men’s hockey captain Dillon Boucher said. The men’s team began their regular season on Oct. 8 and as of Oct. 21, sit with two wins and two losses, their best start to a season since 2016. “I think the guys are a bit antsier to get it going, so that’s bringing positive energy. We’re bringing a lot of energy in games and practices.”
There’s a similar feeling on the women’s basketball team, forward Chloe Wilson said. They don’t start their season until the end of October, but she said the bar for this season has already been set higher than the last.
“[Practice is] a lot more intense. We’re competing a lot more and getting ready to face other teams,” Wilson said, noting a big motivator is getting to play more schools than in brief competition last year. “We’re aggressive in practices so when it gets to playing games, competing is a lot easier for us.”
Shifting back into the “normal” mindset
The hockey and basketball teams, along with soccer, swimming and volleyball, took part in exhibition competition at least once over the 2020-2021 season. Some teams played U SPORTS opponents while others played teams in other conferences or levels.
Hudson Grimshaw-Surette competes in both cross country and track and field. It’s been a long wait for returns in those sports but he said several factors helped him and the team adjust back into compete mode.
“It was pretty normal as far as competition up at [Saint Francis Xavier University] was concerned. It was comparable to a normal opening meet we’d do,” he said of the cross country team’s first race of the season at Saint Francis Xavier in September.
Some of the clear differences from the 2019 season were continuing COVID-19 protocols like masking and proof of vaccination. Once the race began, Grimshaw-Surette said, it felt like business as usual.
“The first race is a little different anyway, because you’re just getting back into it after the summer. It seemed pretty normal right away,” he said.
That difficulty of adjusting back to play after a break is one shared in every competition that doesn’t run 12 months a year. Boucher said it’s a hurdle his team face as they prepare to take on a 30-game season.
“Getting back into the game mindset after a year off and getting back into that groove is the most challenging part,” he said. “A lot of the first and second-year guys are playing real games in this league for the first time. For them, it would be adjusting to the game style and speed. For the guys returning, it’s getting over that year off and back into what we’re used to.
Changes all around
Whether a team played games over the “COVID-19 season” or not, each team has one common factor: they aren’t the same as they were in early 2020. There are more new and departing student-athletes to consider and other factors like injuries and changes on coaching staffs.
The women’s basketball team checks all those boxes. Eight of its roster’s 14 listed players are first-years. Anton Berry steps in as interim head coach following Anna Stammberger’s departure earlier this year, with assistant coach Michele Tchiakoua beginning in her position too. Along with early-season injuries, Wilson said there are many things to work with on the team.
“[A hurdle] will be experience. We had a lot of rookies last year who didn’t get to play in a real AUS game and this year we have even more. In the last few preseason games they got to play a lot though,” she said. “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of teams. In the past few years, we’ve been near the bottom of the barrel, but we’re a lot more competitive. We work really hard, which is a struggle for a lot of teams.”
The cross country team has a lot of new faces this season too. Despite a rocky first couple of competitions, Dal’s teams finished the highest (men’s) and second-highest (women’s) out of AUS teams in the University of New Brunswick/St. Thomas University Invitational meet on Oct. 16, their most recent meet. Grimshaw-Surette said the team’s success is coming to fruition at the right time.
“The first couple meets weren’t ideal in terms of conference points, but everyone’s been handling it well and they’re looking forward to competing,” he said. “It’s nice to be back to normal experiences.”