All things considered, last summer was a success for the amateur sports scene in Winnipeg.
From beer league slo-pitch, to competitive golf, many leagues and competitions around town were able to go off without a hitch.
But the COVID-19 scene has changed quite a bit since then. Long gone are the days of summer where positive cases were in the single digits. There’s also now the pending risk of variants spreading in the Keystone Province, a problem that’s currently arising across the country.
A lot can change in the coming weeks, but the Free Press chatted with organizers from tennis, golf, volleyball, slo-pitch, and soccer to see what they anticipate this summer will look like for their sport.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a safer pandemic activity than grabbing a racquet and whacking a tennis ball at someone who is standing over 70 feet away. Despite that, the pandemic erased Tennis Manitoba’s entire tournament schedule in 2020. Some clubs had tournaments for their members, but they were hesitant to have outsiders enter their bubbles, thus big events like the Manitoba Open didn’t end up happening.
Tennis Manitoba executive director Mark Arndt is hopeful this summer will be different, but ultimately, it’s up to the clubs. The current set of health orders expire April 15 and clubs are waiting to see what changes, if any, are made after that date.
"The clubs are the host facilities and they’re private clubs. It depends on what their philosophy is and how they feel about it," Arndt said.
"I have to approach each club separately and see how they feel about hosting events. We know tennis is the safest sport out there, or at least, in the top two or three or so, it’s safe to host a tournament, but the non-safe part is all the stuff that happens off the court."
Tennis Manitoba is already working on a modified tournament format that would minimize traffic by eliminating the consolation side of brackets and doubles play.
"I’m optimistic. A few clubs have already stated they want to host tournaments... We can make it happen. I know we can make it happen in a safe way based on now having a year of data and experience with COVID," Arndt said.
"But we don’t have a year of experience with these variants so who knows how bad they’re going to be."
Golf Manitoba was the envy of all the sports organizations inside the Sport for Life Centre building at 145 Pacific Ave. last year — and they likely still are.
They were able to have a full competitive golf season in 2020, but is it realistic to think this summer will look the same?
"Obviously, (the variants) are becoming more prominent now as we see what’s happening to the east and west of us," said Golf Manitoba executive director Jared Ladobruk.
"We’ve booked things and plan to have a full competitive schedule this year as we did last year. Obviously, at this time last year, we didn’t know if we’d be golfing at all. But we have planned a full season and we’re proceeding as such. We did it last year under these conditions and we did it successfully. Basing off of that experience, it’s our hope this year is just the same as last year."
The protocols will remain the same: flags remain in holes at all times, golf courses will remove touchpoints such as rakes and ball washers, and players will be asked to leave the course immediately after reporting their scores. The only difference this time around is that players will be asked to wear masks when checking in and reporting their birdies and bogeys after their round. The volunteers at the scorer’s tables will also mask up.
"Obviously, the safety of our players, volunteers and staff, those who work at the host clubs, is always at the top of our minds. Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s done safely so that no one gets sick or becomes sick from participation. We’ll only proceed if it’s deemed safe to do so. Golf was one of the few activities that thrived last year and it’s shaping up to do the same this year," said Ladobruk.
Winnipeg Folk Festival and Dauphin’s Countryfest recently announced their 2021 events have been cancelled. It’s obvious the writing is on the wall for the biggest party of the summer for the volleyball community — Super-Spike.
Volleyball Manitoba executive director John Blacher was asked if the popular tournament in July, which features nearly 500 teams of people spending a weekend at Maple Grove Rugby Park bumping, setting, spiking, and drinking, could be pushed back to a later date this year.
"You can anticipate the planning that goes into a festival-type event of that nature. It takes a lot of work to confirm the bands, the entertainment, the registration, and all of that. In current time, we really aren’t anticipating that it will be a go again this summer. We’ll make that announcement officially when it’s determined probably in the coming weeks," Blacher said.
The good news for volleyballers is that they can get their fix of the beach game starting in early June as Volleyball Manitoba is accepting youth and adult registrations for their Summer Series Beach League, hosted at Sargent Park Beach Volleyball Centre and Maple Grove.
"We kind of know what we want to deliver and what we can deliver which we really didn’t know last year," said Blacher.
"But what we’re allowed to do can change on a dime at any given notice on any given day. But we’re looking at timelines here and we don’t have thousands of people at our venues for beach volleyball. We’re really hoping with variants aside, with vaccines in arms and some level of immunity, we can move forward a little bit more normally with sport and everything else we do."
Even with more positive cases and variants now in play, registration to play slo-pitch has gone up this summer.
"Last year, there was a lot of uncertainty and some teams took the year off," said Kent Kamenz, Manitoba’s regional director for Slo-pitch National.
"Everyone is really itching to get back. They just want to play the game they love, hang with their friends, be outdoors, and be physical."
Last season didn’t see anyone running the bases until June, but Kamenz said leagues are on track to be starting next month. However, things will likely look different if the current restrictions remain in place. The current rules allow only a maximum of 25 people, including an umpire, at a diamond. Kamenz said they’re hoping that rule isn’t in place for much longer.
But in the case of slo-pitch, the sport itself isn’t the problem, it’s the social aspect that goes with it.
"People are always going to bend the rules and break them. But we try to tell people as much as possible to not abuse this, stay within the rules, and do what we have to do so we don’t lose this opportunity. That’s all we can do. We’re not the police," Kamenz said.
Soccer didn’t hit the ground running in 2020 until the middle of July. This time around, the Manitoba Soccer Association is aiming for the beginning of May. Registrations are currently open up to players of all ages and while things are trending in a positive direction, Manitoba Soccer Association executive director Hector Vergara knows it’s possible for their summer plan to be thrown out the window.
"I can tell you from personal experience from friends that I know in the soccer community and privately, that one incident can be a domino effect that can impact a bunch of people very quickly. It doesn’t take much," he said.
Vergara said they’re hoping two teams will be able to meet for exhibition play in the final two weeks of April. Currently, teams can only have scrimmages made up with the players on their roster.
"We want people to play the sport," said Vergara.
"We want kids to get out on the field. It’s good for mental health, it’s good for fitness, it’s good to get fresh air, it’s good for everybody. But it’s also important to be mindful that we’re part of a larger community and we play a role in making sure this doesn’t go the wrong way. "
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.