HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
The deep-bass sounds of basketballs hitting the Notre Dame High School gymnasium floor ended 9 months ago. The Canada Topflight Academy senior team was preparing for the National Preparatory Association tournament.
The squad was peaking, having won its last 8 games, owning a 30-4 overall record, including 10-2 in NPA, and capturing tournaments in Toronto and Montreal. But then came an opponent with an offence they couldn’t defend against: COVID-19.
The worldwide pandemic shut down their successful 2019-20 season a few weeks before attempting to win their third NPA championship. “We couldn’t finish the season and we were never together again,” said head coach Tony House.
In the past nine months, players have graduated from one of the top high school prep basketball programs in Canada, three have transferred out of the Ottawa academy and several others have declined this year for health and safety reasons.
Despite recruiting in the off-season for an uncertain 2020-21 season, House was able to fill a 15-man roster for his Gold senior team and a 10-man lineup for the Red junior varsity squad, which is based out of St. Pius X High School.
But House had to cancel the girls’ program because coaches couldn’t conduct talent identification sessions and tryouts, plus the wife of head coach Mario Gaetano had passed away. “It was OK to take a year off,” House said.
For the players on the Gold and Red teams, the academy’s program is significantly different this year. In the past, the student/athletes had a regular day of classes followed by academy study hall, weights and cardio training and a two-practice.
Today, the students study every other day either virtually from home or in-class focused on two subjects each quadmester. Each class is 150 minutes long. Basketball training happens on non-school days – three one week and two the next week.
Since Ottawa’s high school gyms are closed, the Gold team practised outdoors until mid November and is now training at La Cité collégiale and Kenwood Athletic Centre in Arnprior. The Red team practises at Greenboro Community Centre and RA Centre.
“When I was recruiting, I promised I would do as much as I could do. There would be training and practices without compromising anyone’s health,” House said. “It’s yet to be seen if we will have any games.”
In the near future, House hopes to have two intrasquad games for the Gold team. This will allow the players to have some recruiting video from game situations to forward to university coaches, who are unable to travel and visit players.
Seven Gold team players are in their final year, but trying to earn a Canadian or American university athletic scholarship offer will be difficult. The 2020-21 U Sports season has been cancelled, but players will not lose a year of eligibility.
“I have phoned a lot of coaches and they tell me they have no spots. University teams won’t lose a body. All the players will come back,” added House, who also has told parents he won’t compromise their son’s health to play a league game.
“I feel bad for them. They’re antsy to play. They’re frustrated. At the end of the day, I tell them we’re working on skill development and getting better. We hope to do controlled scrimmages. It’s not a great climate. Maybe by the end of January.”
As frustrating as this season has been for House in his fifth year operating the academy, he’s clinging to one positive. “My daughter (Madison) is pregnant and I’m going to be a grandfather. She’s due March 1,” he proudly stated.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for over 47 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.