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Golden Bears football not keen on possibility of having to hibernate

University Alberta Golden Bears quarterback Brad Launhardt (16) looks to pass to Tanner Buchanan (19) during first half Canada West action against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies at Foote Field on Sept. 21, 2019.
University Alberta Golden Bears quarterback Brad Launhardt (16) looks to pass to Tanner Buchanan (19) during first half Canada West action against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies at Foote Field on Sept. 21, 2019.

It’s a skeleton schedule football teams in Canada West are facing in the fall, but for now, it’s still got a heartbeat, at least.

With across-the-board funding cutbacks compounded by complications from COVID-19 restrictions that appear to be remaining in place for the foreseeable future, the six-university league is cutting back its usual eight-game schedule to just five.

The rejigged scheduled, which was announced last week by the U-Sports conference making up Canada’s four western provinces, leaves everyone playing each other once, either home or away, with a playoff format yet to be determined.

If all goes according to plan, that is.

“I think it’s all good, even the fact we’re still considering playing,” said University of Alberta Golden Bears head coach Chris Morris. “And I think we’re not out of the woods here yet. If we don’t maintain social distancing and we allow a spike to happen, I think that schedule could go away really quickly.

“To me, it’s just so encouraging that a schedule is on the table. I don’t care whether it’s a shortened season or what it is, it’s a season where the kids get to play. And that’s a great thing for all those kids and it will be a fun season, no matter what.”

At this point, even a bare-bones season is better than no season at all, especially with a quick glance around the conference at a couple of cancelled programs that won’t be playing at all anymore with the University of Lethbridge pulling the plug on men’s and women’s hockey last month.

“That’s the other part, too, as you start looking at the whole financial viability of this thing,” Morris said. “You look at our program, in particular, we depend so much on our alumni, other program supporters and all those sort of things to actually be a competitive program, we have lots of work to do over the next little bit.

“Luckily, we’ve done a really good job of building up and we’ve got some pretty good kids in our program and we’ve got a good, young team so we should be able to weather the storm here for a couple years so we can get things back on track with some of the supporters that we’ve had.”

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on his more veteran players as the window closes on a student-athlete’s eligibility at age 24, unlike the other varsity sports with no such limit.

“Football’s the one sport in Canada where there’s an age restriction on playing,” Morris said. “Those kids getting to 23, 24 years old, they age out, so they’re not allowed to play the following year. Those are the kids you’d be worried about, because whatever stage of their degree they’re in, they’ve got one or two years left and, all of a sudden, those years get taken away. You feel for those kids, because in any other sport in the country, they still get to play.

“If there’s a season, they’re not going to give them back eligibility, even if it’s a shortened season. If there is no season, then they’ll have to make that decision. There’s going to be some real hard questions asked at that point. In the NCAA, they set the precedent of giving those kids back that eligibility, so I don’t know what U-Sports will decide to do.”

At the same time, there is always fresh blood coming in, whether or not the season gets played.

“We’re working on our 2021 class already, we’ve had a whole bunch of recruiting meetings, we’ve got a whole bunch of correspondence out and talk to kids on a daily basis,” said Morris. “Recruiting is an ongoing, daily thing. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, if you’re not recruiting, someone else is.

“So we’re working very hard on the 2021 class. It’s a good class with good kids all across Western Canada.”

But it could become difficult to continue scouting into the future with Football Alberta’s minor-league and high-school seasons in limbo.

“From what I’m hearing, September’s the earliest they’ll be playing in high school, if they are playing and if they’re going back to school,” Morris said. “There’s a whole bunch of things to still be looked at there. And with that 2021 recruiting class, if those kids don’t get to play, now you’ve got a whole other set of issues. Now, you haven’t seen the kid play for a whole year and you don’t know.

“It’s such a big hole for some of these kids, they’re so used to training and working and this is an all-encompassing type thing for some of these guys. You hope they find other ways to sort of fill that void while this is going on, and once it clears up, that we can get them back into this quickly because it’s certainly a healthy thing to be involved with.”

E-mail: gmoddejonge@postmedia.com

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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