This has been a back-to-school season like no other.
Schools are trying to figure out how they can open their doors and resume activities while keeping students and teachers safe.
Things are far from perfect in Manitoba, as COVID-19 cases have been confirmed at several Winnipeg schools already, but the risk is certainly magnified for institutions down south due to their population size and inability to control the spread. But that hasn't stopped local athletes from continuing their education in the United States this fall.
The Free Press chatted with five Manitobans from five different sports who are currently on the other side of the border and trying to make the best of the situation during these uncertain times.
Amy Lewis — Dakota College at Bottineau
Amy Lewis isn't far from her hometown of Virden, but it sure does feel like it for the freshman volleyball player at Dakota College at Bottineau in North Dakota.
"One of the reasons I chose Bottineau is because it's close and it has everything I need here. But with the border being closed, it really sucks because my doorstep is literally an hour-and-a-half away from here and I can't go and see everyone," said Lewis, a 17-year-old outside hitter.
"It's just been really unpredictable with the pandemic. We were obviously worried about the whole COVID thing. It's not bad here, but there have been cases on campus."
Lewis said the vibe in North Dakota is that people are more accepting of the virus. They'll wear masks, but nobody appears to be overly concerned. Athletes have mandatory testing once a week and Lewis knows several people who have tested positive.
"The thing is, I've had close friends here who have tested positive and none of them had symptoms.... It kind of shakes you a bit. A guy who got it is one of my best guy friends and I was literally hanging out with him before he got it, a couple days before, and then boom, I can't see him for two to three weeks because he's in isolation," said Lewis.
"This could literally happen to anyone, and before we were thinking — or I was thinking, anyway — 'Oh, I'm not going to get it. I don't live in a big city.' And then you come here and one of your best friends gets it and you're like, 'Oh my God.' It kind of gives you that wake-up call to be careful."
Lewis has all of her classes in person, but desks are six feet apart, they are wiped down after each class and students must wear a mask until they're seated. As for volleyball, the team, who plays out of the Mon-Dak (Montana-North Dakota) Athletic Conference, is on the court five days a week practising or scrimmaging; the season start has been pushed back to January. Athletes have to wear a mask on the bench but on the court it feels like business as usual. For the most part, anyway.
"You can't high-five the other team and say 'good luck,'" said Lewis. "You kind of just stand at the attack line and wave, which is really weird."
Daniel Sackey — Valparaiso University
It was one of the last "normal" sporting events to happen. Winnipeg's Daniel Sackey and the Valparaiso Crusaders met the Bradley Braves in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game on March 8 with a spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line. Bradley came away with a 80-66 victory, but their celebration didn't last for long. Just over a week later, the NCAA was forced to cancel the men's and women's basketball championships — which typically generates nearly $1 billion in ad revenue — owing to COVID-19 concerns.
"To be honest with you, I didn't really know much about COVID at all. Everything was regular to me," said Sackey, recalling the conference championship. His family made the trip to St. Louis for the game.
"I didn't have any knowledge of the disease or how fast it was spreading at the time. We had fans at the game, around 10,000 people. Everything was just normal and then literally the next week everything shut down and it was just so crazy how drastic it was."
Luckily for the third-year point guard at the private Indiana university, all signs point towards Sackey having another shot at the Missouri Valley title as the NCAA announced last week that the basketball season will start at the end of the November. Teams can schedule up to 25 regular season games and must play at least 13 to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. The sports management major has been in Indiana since July and said he didn't feel too concerned about making the trip. He is, however, crossing his fingers that the season will go as planned.
"I'm kind of skeptical about how this season is going to turn out. I don't know exactly what to expect," said Sackey, who made 25 starts as a sophomore. "You can't really expect anything because things can change drastically. I guess we just have to play it by ear. Whatever they tell us we can or can't do, we've just got to abide by that but in terms of the season, I'm hoping we'll be able to give it a full go these next couple months and play our full (schedule)."
Arlen Peters — Johnson County Community College
With the Manitoba Junior Baseball League starting later than usual this year, Arlen Peters had to leave the Altona Bisons at the start of the playoffs to make the trip to Overland Park, Kan., for his freshman season. But if you're looking for an update on the COVID-19 situation around Kansas, the pitcher/infielder from smalltown Schanzenfel is not your guy.
"Really, to be honest with you, I don't really pay that much attention to COVID. Being a student athlete — you can ask people who've done it — you don't have much time," said Peters.
"It's very crazy between weights, practice, homework and classwork. Out here you have to wear a mask inside any building, but other than that, I really don't know what the cases are looking like out here."
Kansas has had more than 53,000 cases and 597 deaths. Peters doesn't downplay the situation, but for him, nothing was going to get in the way of him playing ball. The fall season has been axed but they're hoping they'll be able to play in the spring. In the meantime, Peters and his Johnson County teammates will be playing intrasquad games to stay sharp.
"I wasn't really too concerned. At first when the (pandemic) first came up I was really hoping I'd still be able to come down. It was something I've worked so hard for. Being able to come down, it's been great. I really, really enjoy it here... I wasn't really too worried. If it happens, it happens. That's kind of my mindset on it, but everybody's got a different mindset about it."
Raygan Kirk — Robert Morris University
She's one of the best young hockey goalies in the game, but St. Anne's Raygan Kirk isn't sure when she'll get to compete again.
Kirk had an outstanding freshman season at Robert Morris University — an NCAA school in Moon County, Pa., which is a 20-minute drive from Pittsburgh— where she went 15-8-1 and posted a 2.05 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. Before she went to Robert Morris, she backstopped Canada to a gold medal at the world under-18 women's hockey championship in January 2019.
Her sophomore season was supposed to start in October, but it's been delayed with no official start date decided. Some conferences are looking at late November to drop the puck, while others may hold off until January. Kirk and her team started practising last week.
"Definitely a little frustrating not knowing what's going to happen. There's also the risk that we could get sent home early. You just never know," Kirk said.
Kirk is living in a dorm with nine other women, two per room, and they share a common room and a bathroom. The group does what it can to limit their contact with anyone who lives outside their dorm bubble.
"My grandparents and mom... were worried about me coming down here," said Kirk.
"It's a little more lax, but also I feel like they're more strict on the masks and stuff down here. It's just a higher population so there's always a risk."
Kyle Hiebert — Missouri State
A kid from La Salle captained the Missouri State Bears men's soccer team to their best season in school history last year. Defender Kyle Hiebert led the squad to a 17-0-1 record and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than a decade. But Hiebert and his teammates are going to have to wait a while until they can build on that success as the fall season has been cancelled. The Bears will rely on intrasquad games until the spring season. The good news for Hiebert, a redshirt senior, is that the spring campaign won't count as a year of eligibility and he can return in 2021 if he wants to.
"That's definitely hard, I'm not gonna lie. It was really exciting to have the season that we had last year and that excitement had carried through to the spring training," said Hiebert, an accounting major. Hiebert came home or three days at the beginning of March for his sister's wedding and returned to Missouri before travel restrictions were put in place.
"As we were getting ramped up later on in the spring, that's when COVID hit. It kind of threw our fall season into quite a bit of uncertainty which has now been cancelled. But now it seems there's more of a plan hopefully to have a season in the spring and fall of next year. That part is exciting that there are now real games on the horizon, but it was tough to not have a season this fall."
Hiebert had to redshirt his first two seasons in Missouri due to injury. With that in mind, this year feels like a bonus year for the 23-year-old, so he's accepted the fact that COVID might get in the way of him having the perfect sendoff to his college career. Even though Missouri's had more than 115,000 cases, Hiebert said he felt comfortable spending the summer in Springfield.
"I think as younger — you know, we're in decent shape — athletes, I don't know if guys are too worried about getting it themselves, not that people aren't taking the necessary precautions, but it's kind of like if you have any symptoms or anything, you have the two-week quarantine. And it's just being careful. If I think I've been around someone who might've had it or something, then I make sure I'm not seeing anyone that could be at risk. I'm being very careful to protect those people."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.