By Dan Plouffe
It was a late start for many, but local fields came back to life with laughs and cheers as many community sports returned this summer from the worst days of COVID.
Playing their first real game in over 21 months was “very amazing and very fun,” says Ottawa TFC Soccer Club player Vanessa Ephraim.
“I was really happy to be back,” exclaims Ephraim. “And also hoping that we didn’t go back into lockdown.”
For much of the pandemic, sports frequently flip-flopped between being able to practice in some form with restrictions, and only at home or away from others. Ephraim, a centre-back, found it “very irritating” and difficult to defend while maintaining a distance from attacking players.
COVID’s impact was “very hard mentally,” adds the under-13 girls’ Ontario Player Development League team member who plays with an older age group.
“I wasn’t doing anything socially with my friends for like, a year, so that was hard,” Ephraim explains. “I didn’t get to see my friends, my coaches, everyone.”
The first game was huge, but the first day players were allowed to train without modifications might have been even bigger, notes Ottawa TFC girls’ academy director Raz El-Asmar.
“It was like a party,” recalls the local coach of over 30 years. “All of a sudden, you can tell there’s a bigger smile on their face, working harder, and it was like there was more purpose.
“It was awesome to just look at the green grass, there’s a ball, and we can finally kick it together.”
In soccer, regional play returned first, with the Nepean Hotspurs hosting an East Region Soccer League triple-header kickoff on July 18. Teams also started the Ontario Cup knockout tournament at the same time (the Ottawa Gloucester Hornets U16 girls and the Gloucester Celtic men have both reached the semi-final round, to be played on Aug. 28-29). And the OPDL provincial youth circuit then followed on Civic Holiday weekend.
West Ottawa Warriors U13 girls’ OPDL coach Thomas Muir says preparation for the season of course wasn’t ideal, particularly for his age group that was learning to play on a full field with 11 players for the first time, though his team was split into bubbles of 10 for some time.
“We had to really get in gear,” details Muir, whose team had just a week notice that it was game-on before their first contest. “But they were getting sick of doing the online Zoom training sessions with everyone on camera, so they were just excited more than anything to get back on the pitch.
“We’re just super stoked that we can even have a season because we missed the whole season last year, and that was definitely hard for the girls.
“You can see how much it means to them, right? It’s huge for the kids and their mental well-being. They’re excited getting to be with their teammates again, and getting to compete together.”
Kwame Telemaque, the Warriors club head coach for the U11-U14 levels, says young players did an exceptional job adapting to the “nightmare” circumstances.
“I think they’re more resilient than adults, to be honest,” he highlights. “That kind of adversity – if you’re trying to be an elite athlete, that’s just the epitome of adversity. I’m really happy with the players and how they’ve fought through it.”
There have certainly been many lessons learned through COVID, and a renewed appreciation for the opportunity to play, Telemaque adds.
“At the end of the day, I’m just happy the kids are back home,” he underlines while surveilling the sights and sounds of the lively local pitches. “You see the smile on everybody’s face, even the opposing team, they’re just happy to play. Win, lose or draw doesn’t really matter right now.”
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.