By Zachary Flynn

With the COVID-19 pandemic delaying all ACAC play until at least January, the NAIT Ooks have been taking advantage of the extended off-season to build team chemistry.

“It’s a bit of a blessing in disguise. Obviously, all of us wish we were starting to play [in October] but given the nature of how things are it’s not the worst thing in the world to have an extended training camp,” said fifth-year men’s basketball player, Keilan Dobish.

Dobish’s college career would have otherwise come to an end at the close of this season but the ACAC has said that if players choose to play this year, it will not count towards one of their five years of eligibility.

Dobish said that of the players on the unofficial roster for this season, only five are returning from last year.

“Given the situation we’re in, I think the level of comradery we have as a team so far is absolutely incredible. I truly enjoy being around everybody on this team not only on the court but also with the small amount of time we’ve had off the court. It helps a lot that a lot of the veterans we’re bringing in are guys that I’m familiar with,” he said.

The biggest advantage Dobish says the men’s basketball team has is that almost everybody on the team is from the Edmonton area.

“For a majority of the summer, having a good part of our guys there training together was a really big benefit for us that I don’t think a lot of other teams had,” said Dobish.

He also sees a big difference in the training style compared to last year’s five-week camp before the 2019-2020 season.

“Instead of rushing to put everything in place five weeks before the season starts and only having five weeks to evaluate and decide who’s going to be on the 12-man roster, we almost have an entire semester to evaluate and put those things into place,” said Dobish.

“We can really start with the small details of what we’re trying to do as a team and then slowly expand into the big picture instead of spending the first five weeks of practice throwing everything in at one time.”

For other NAIT teams like the women’s hockey team, many of the players come from out of town, out of province and even internationally to play for the Ooks.

Hanna Paquette is a first-year on the team and while she is originally from Edmonton, she spent her senior year of high school in Penticton at the Okanagan Hockey Academy.

“With the last team, it took me about a week to get to know everybody and get settled in. After that first week, I was well acquainted with everybody. This year, it’s a little harder and we’re not together every day like I was down [in BC],” said Paquette.

The team was unable to access the rink until October and the fitness centre is currently undergoing updates to allow for COVID-safe reopening. Despite these factors, Paquette says head coach Stef Thomson has been actively working to get the team together as often as possible.

“Most coaches would be like ‘The first practice is in October. See you all then,’” she said. “She’s been really pushing for all of us to be on the zoom calls, getting as many of us as she can to the optional workout sessions. She’s really been pushing to get the team together as early as we can.”

Through outdoor group training sessions, newly available rink time, team hikes and other activities to come, Paquette is looking forward to getting to know her teammates better.

“Personally, the first month, everybody feels like a rookie. When you’re first coming in it’s kind of hard to put yourself out there but I think all of us new players are starting to do that now that we’re getting more into the flow of things.”

October 15 is set to be the day that the ACAC announces whether or not they will cancel or plan for a winter 2021 season. Until then players like Keilan Dobish are taking practice day by day.

“The big thing is a lot of guys are trying to stay in the moment and just have an appreciation for the time that we have and just not trying to look too far ahead,” said Dobish.