ANTIGONISH: This past weekend, university sport returned to the province, however StFX University, which is hosting 75 per cent of their classes in-person, say they won’t be participating.

The athletic director says he was optimistic to have the opportunity to compete against the other Nova Scotia schools this year, but remains hopeful they’ll resume a normal sport season next year.

“Our coaches and student-athletes were hopeful, we thought we had a plan that we would be able to do it safely, unfortunately, we weren’t given permission,” MacPherson told The Reporter. “Our student-athletes want to and we want to see them compete, but at the end of the day, the university has to make its own call on what the best interest is for the campus community, and sometimes that makes for some unpopular decisions.”

Three Nova Scotian universities, Acadia, Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie, began a five-week schedule of exhibition games for winter sports including hockey, basketball, volleyball, and swimming.

Late in the fall, Atlantic University Sport (AUS) made the tough decision to cancel the winter sports season amid the second wave of COVID-19 in Atlantic Canada.

While StFX was hopeful to participate with the other Nova Scotian universities, the university’s senior administration informed the athletic department they would not be participating.

In an email to MacPherson, Elizabeth Yeo, the university’s vice-president of students, acknowledged the excellent work of AUS leadership in crafting a plan that “incorporates, and in some cases exceeds, the safeguards and standards outlined by Public Health.”

She explained StFX values the benefit of travel and competition for their student-athletes, but the university cannot entertain even the mitigated risks presented.

“I recognize this decision will be disappointing for our coaches and student-athletes who have already missed the opportunity to play due to COVID-19,” Yeo said. “However, the health and safety of our entire campus community and the wider Antigonish region is (and will continue to be) paramount in the university’s decision making.”

MacPherson suggested the university “aired on the side of caution,” after having a number of things to consider including the school’s course load being 75 per cent in-person. If there was a positive COVID case, self-isolation means most likely missing classes for 14-days, he noted. They also saw how quickly the Newfoundland situation changed, and that was tied to high school sports, along with the new COVID variant being a concern, MacPherson said.

“It is tough for our student-athletes to see their peers and other Nova Scotia universities being able to compete, they all train and develop and work in a sport they love, so that’s hard,” he said. “I really feel for our student-athletes because we have an amazing crop of athletes here at X and their resilience has impressed the heck out of me the entire year.”

Additionally, another challenging point for many around campus MacPherson said was the fact their facilities are heavily used by the community.

“There are some teams and community groups who come onto campus for sporting events or activities,” he said. “And the tough thing for our student-athletes is they see this happening all around them and they can’t compete.”

While sport teams have still been practicing this academic year, and it’s a difficult end for fifth-year student-athletes, MacPherson indicated it’s particularly frustrating that men’s basketball coach Steve Konchalski’s illustrious 45-year career with the white and blue is over.

“I do feel terribly for our student-athletes and the disappointment the pandemic has presented, but I quickly shift to Coach K,” MacPherson said. “He’s a legend in the basketball community; he’s a legend in the province and across this county.”

The 75-year-old Coach K, who has accumulated 918 career wins and led the X-Men to 42 appearances in the AUS playoffs, won’t get another chance to coach a sanctioned game before he retires in March.

“This is not the way the script was supposed to unfold,” MacPerson said of Coach K, who was in his 46th and final season. “We were set to host the National Championships in Halifax in March, and he hasn’t been able to coach his last game.”

As for continued discussions on the possibility of StFX joining the AUS-backed exhibition season, the athletic director indicated it doesn’t look like it’s going to be an option.

He suggested they would have loved to honour their long-serving bench boss in a game against Acadia, Konchalski’s alma mater, in which he was a stand-out student-athlete himself.

“This is a week-to-week operation and the plug could get pulled at any time,” MacPherson said. “We have things planned to send Coach K off appropriately, but it would have been a lot easier and a lot more compelling for him without the pandemic.”