By Woodard, Dale on July 25, 2020.
Jermaine Small and the Edmonton Stingers are in the zone.
They’re going to stay there for the next two weeks and when they emerge they plan to be Canadian Elite Basketball League champions.
Small – who earlier this year became the new head coach for the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns men’s basketball team – and the Stingers are in St. Catherines Ont. for the Summer Series starting tonight.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Small’s first season with the Horns is on hold until New Years. But in St. Catherines it’s tip off time in the Niagara region as the CEBL hosts the refigured Summer Series and the league looks to crown its second champion in the first professional, non-exhibition team sports game held in the country since the pandemic shut down leagues in mid-March.
“It’s exciting, first and foremost, to play,” said Small. “It’s different wrapping my head around playing with no fans. It’s crazy, but it’s a testament to what this league is about. There have been many contingency plans through the months. We’re pretty much in a bubble. We have our safe zone. There are two hotels and we’re here taking it day-by-day and trying to win a championship.”
The seven teams – the defending champion Saskatchewan Rattlers, Guelph Nighthawks, Niagara River Lions, Hamilton Honey Badgers, expansion Ottawa BlackJacks, Fraser Valley Bandits and the Stingers – gathered in St. Catherines for training camp just over a week ago. Players and coaches have undergone several COVID-19 tests.
“We all got tested and now we’re in the seventh day of training camp,” said Small, whose team will open the Summer Series Sunday against the Bandits at 2 p.m., local time.
“So every team trains every day for about two to four hours. The guys have been off for such a long time. So everybody is getting their wind back and (today) we start playing. Everybody plays each other once and the seventh place team is eliminated at the end of those six games. Then we reseed and it’s right to the playoffs to play for a championship. For me, from Game 1 it’s a playoff game. It’s pretty condensed and that’s to our advantage. We’re bringing back seven guys from last year’s team and we have that cohesion and that core.”
The Summer Series setup consists of three safe zones: the team hotel, the training arena, and the Meridian Centre. Players will follow the same Ontario guidelines as the general public. Athletes can venture out to purchase groceries and other essentials, but family members and other outsiders aren’t permitted into the safe zones.
As well, games will be played in front of no fans.
The usual precautions are being taken, ranging from masks to ample scrubbing of surfaces.
“They gave everybody a couple of masks and they’re sanitizing everywhere,” said Small.
“Where we’re practising is a local YMCA which is literally a two-minute walk from the hotel. So you get there, get your two hours (of practice) in and then they sanitize the gym after every practice for about a half hour then the next team comes in. We’re in a pretty good area. They have a couple bars and lots of food places around us. Our games at the Meridian Centre is eight minutes away. Everything is very convenient. It’s very safe. We all got tested two weeks ago because you couldn’t get on the court unless you had a negative test. We all have to wear a mask and people are wearing gloves. At first it’s abnormal, but then it becomes really normal and habitual. You just get used to it.”
Small said his team utilized ample Zoom sessions while athletes trained on their own during the layoff.
“Guys were playing outdoors. It’s funny because when I was growing up that’s how we did it, we played outdoor basketball. The difference between the pro guys is this is what they do for a living. They go above and beyond. It’s their craft and what they do. I’m not too worried about guys being out of shape, it’s just playing together again after a long layoff.”
With a return to the court comes high expectations as the Stingers look to take the next step after losing in the semifinals last season.
“The goal is definitely to win,” said Small.
“We came up short last year and bringing back seven guys from last year, we still have that bitter taste in our mouth. It’s to win, but obviously health is first and I don’t want anyone getting injured or (sick). It’s to have fun with the sport and feel that normalcy again. For me, it’s just seeing the guys again and knowing how they’re doing and interacting with them and having fun doing what we love to do and that’s play basketball. We’ll do our best and focus on what we can control to win a championship.”
One or two games per day will be played through Aug. 5. The quarter-finals take place Aug. 6 and the semifinals Aug. 8. The championship final goes at 10 a.m. local time Aug. 9.
Follow @DWoodardHerald on Twitter