Local sports organizations are busy preparing for a start to their seasons in the coming weeks despite Simcoe Muskoka still being in the red “control” zone, which restricts team sports from being practised or played, except for training.
Orillia & District Soccer (ODSC) Club board member John Copp says competitive teams will return to the pitch on April 5, and house league teams will return after the Victoria Day long weekend in May.
“We are preparing cautiously. Our first priority is the safety of our players and their parents,” Copp said.
Currently, the ODSC is in the process of having its return-to-play plan approved by the City of Orillia and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.
“So far the city has been supportive of our plans, so we hope to get out there and get playing,” Copp said.
The ODSC has more than 200 players registered (without payment) for the upcoming season, which is down from the nearly 400 players who committed to playing last year before the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the season.
“We have people who want to play and want to get out there, so that’s a positive sign,” Copp said. “Now it’s just a matter of going through the proper steps to get the fields ready.”
If the season started today, players would be limited to training in pods of ten with lots of restrictions in place to keep players socially distanced and safe.
“We’ve committed to putting in a lot of hours of volunteer time in order to create procedures,” Copp said.
“We even have a plan in place for Kitchener Park so people don’t cross paths. It leaves a gap time between people coming and going.”
Despite likely starting the season with restrictions, the ODSC is hopeful that later in the summer players will experience a more normalized soccer experience. Playing with restrictions isn’t ideal, especially for the organization’s older players.
“Some of the feedback that we’ve gotten from Orillia Minor Hockey was that the older teams with kids from 13- to 15-years old get fatigued from playing the same people over and over,” Copp said.
“Part of the joy of the game is playing six to eight different teams over the season; friendships and competition are built that way, people like a little bit of some spice in their game.”
No matter what the season looks like this year, Copp says it’s crucial for players to return to the pitch in some capacity.
“I’ve been watching the parents in my neighbourhood and I see how cautious they are, they are keeping their distance, following all the protocols, and everybody has put so much work into it that,” he said.
“It would be such a treat for kids to be able to put on a pair of soccer cleats, a uniform, and go down to the field and see a few of their friends...I think they've earned it," Copp explained.
Registration for the soccer season is still open on the ODSC website.
The Orillia Ball Hockey Club (OBHC) had scheduled its Spring season to get started on March 7, but until Simcoe Musoka moves into the orange “restrict” zone, the season will remain on hold.
OBHC manager Adam Woolfrey says players are disappointed with the delay to their season, but everyone understands the circumstances.
“We were hoping we would be in the orange zone by this point in time, but we understand that cases are climbing and COVID is still affecting everybody,” he said.
“We were excited to play hockey and a lot of our players and parents were excited to get out and get active again, so we are kind of bummed out.”
The OBHC has not given up hope on the spring season.
“We are not in a refund position yet; players who paid for the spring season are currently patiently waiting,” he said.
“At this point, we don’t have a deadline yet; we are still expecting to run a full spring season.”
Because of the delay to the spring season, players might experience a delay to the summer season by a couple of weeks. For now, players can still register for the spring season on the OBHC website.
Players are also able to rent out the rink at 995 Memorial Ave. to work on their skills for just $25.
“Players are just happy to have the opportunity to get out and shoot around with their friends.”
The Orillia Slo-Pitch League (OSPL) is also preparing to return to the diamond this spring. The season is scheduled to get under way in about six weeks during the first week of May.
So far 70 teams have sent the league their intent to field a team this season, which is down from 82 teams last year. OSPL officials are still waiting to hear back from some teams who are undecided on if they will participate.
While OSPL president Mike Borrelli is excited to welcome back players to the diamond this spring, he warns them to expect some minor changes to the game.
“We are aggressively moving forward to hit our start date projection on May 1, and we are watching to see if our zone colour changes because we want to keep most of our rules intact,” he said.
Borrelli says under new modified rules teams won’t shake hands after games. Instead, teams will wave to each other from the bench to show sportsmanship.
The OSPL is also considering a force-out rule at second base which would eliminate physical contact from either a tag or a collision.
“We aren’t changing our game forever, but because of this year with COVID, we are going to have to give a little bit. It’s not going to change the dynamic of our game,” Borrelli said.
“If the colour zone changes from red to green, we will make changes and loosen the modifications to the safety rules. We will continue to do what’s necessary to keep players safe as we go.”
Borrelli says players can expect to hear from the league regarding payment, rules, and further league information in about a week.
In a normal year, Orillia Legion Minor Baseball (OLMB), like the OSPL, is usually back on the diamond for the first week of May. OLMB president Wes Winkel says no rep games have been scheduled as of yet, making the usual Opening Day date in peril.
“It’s likely that the start of the season is going to be delayed, but we don’t know for how long,” Winkel said.
Despite an early season delay, Winkel believes local ball players will get some swings in this year.
“I expect we will have a baseball season. Will it be a normal one? I doubt it, it will probably be a modified and shortened season.”
Winkel says it’s possible that the season gets extended into the fall this year to help make up for lost time.
“We are currently waiting for our region to move to orange, and we are waiting for Baseball Ontario to open up their rules as well. As for now, we can train our players in groups of no more than ten,” he said.
So far over 350 players have signed up for the OLMB season, which is down from 470 the last time an in-game pitch was thrown in Orillia.
“We are still down in numbers, but we are starting to get caught up in registrations, which is promising,” Winkel said.
OLMB is still accepting registrations through their website, and players are not being asked to commit financially before May. 1.
“We are begging players to register so we have some idea on how to formulate teams,” Winkel said.
With baseball season just around the corner, Winkel pleads to health officials and government decision makers to prioritize the physical and mental well-being of youth.
“We are hoping they open us up and recognize the importance of youth sports. It’s a long time coming,” he said.
“The easy thing to do is to say it’s too risky and not run sports, but let’s not take the easy road, let’s find a way to make it work.”
Officials from the Orillia Lady Kings and the Orillia Minor Lacrosse Association were not available to comment in time for publication of this article.