Canadian high-school athletes face major hurdles in efforts to land scholarships

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He could be the future of Canadian sprinting, the country's next Andre De Grasse.

But Marcus Renford is working in a grocery store just north of Toronto that for more than a month last winter saw new COVID-19 cases among employees every week.

Standing-room only crowds at the Ontario high school track and field championships once oohed and aahed at Renford's raw speed, their heads turning in unison to watch the youngster race to five gold medals.

But Renford hasn't competed in more than a year.

When COVID-19 brought sports around the world to a standstill in March 2020, it didn't spare high school. Gyms locked their doors. Kids were sent home to attend classes on Zoom. Weeks with no sports turned into months and eventually — a lost year with an impact few could have imagined.

"I feel so badly for them," said Renford's coach Tony Sharpe. "So many dreams that, maybe not completely gone by the wayside, but have been delayed."

Renford won the midget boys 100 and 200 metres and long jump at OFSAA — Ontario's prestigious high school championships — in Grade 9, setting provincial records in the 200 and long jump, marks that still stand. A student at Tommy Douglas Secondary School in Vaughan, Ont., Renford followed it up with victories in the 100 and 200, and a silver in long jump, in Grade 10.

He was hampered by a hamstring injury in Grade 11, but looked forward to closing his high-school career in 2020 with performances at OFSAA — which Sharpe calls the top high-school meet in North America — that would secure him an NCAA Division I scholarship.

Then the bottom fell out.

"I felt this sense of despair, I kind of just gave up, I wanted to quit," Renford said on the cancellation of his Grade 12 season. "I wasn't planning on running anymore. I just felt like there's like no point."

Sharpe was De Grasse's first track coach, famously spotting the rough-around-the-edges runner at a high school meet. De Grasse was so raw he stood upright at the starting line, and ran in borrowed spikes. He has since won three Olympic medals.

"I'm really excited about Marcus, he's a really delightful kid to watch sprint, I think he's super talented. He reminds me of Andre in many, many ways when I watch him in practice." Sharpe said.

However, there hasn't been much opportunity for training since Redford asked Sharpe to coach him in 2020. A few weeks' reprieve from Ontario's lockdown last summer saw virtually every one of Sharpe's 50-some athletes excitedly show up for practice with his Speed Academy Athletics Club in Pickering, Ont.

But with indoor facilities only open to Olympic hopefuls, Sharpe's group had nowhere to train through the winter — and Renford has zero recent race results to show NCAA coaches.

His profile on Next College Student Athlete's recruiting site lists his Grade 10 times. A video highlight shows his 200-metre victory in Grade 10. The six-foot sprinter pulls away down the stretch winning by a good five metres. A spectator can be heard saying "Oh wow!"

It's impossible to say how fast Renford would have run in 2020, but Sharpe pointed out that the two years between Grades 10 and 12 are massive growth periods.

"A lot of times they're 20 pounds bigger and six inches taller," he said.

Renford took a year off to work, with the intention of training and racing his way into an NCAA program. Now, he faces a tough decision: Does he take another year off to work and train with Sharpe? Does he follow De Grasse's path and attend a small U.S. school and then transfer? (De Grasse started out at Coffeyville College in Kansas before winning NCAA titles in the 100 and 200 for the USC Trojans). Or does he go the Canadian university route?

"My thing is give it a year (to properly train and race), at least you'll honestly know if you're good enough and not go through life thinking 'Crap, I could have gone to the NCAA,' or whatever," Sharpe said.

Because Ontario has banned outdoor group activities in the third-wave lockdown, Renford meets a couple of teammates to train.

"It's a lot better than being cooped up in the house," he said.

And if there's a silver lining to the pandemic, he's learned that sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

"I know I'll take (track) a lot more seriously, I won't take it for granted," Renford said. "I was serious before, but not as serious as now. Before at practices I wouldn't give my 100 per cent, I could be kinda lazy.

"I'm never going to do that again. Because anything can happen."

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Renford has plenty of company in the elite high-school ranks as athletes across Canada struggle to find ways to play.

Emmanuel Ugbah has worked out alone too many times to count in the past year.

The six-foot-four, 195-pound guard for Northstar Preparatory Institute in Winnipeg shoots on a playground hoop near his house.

"I'll do moves, scenarios like pretending I'm coming off a ball screen, making my move off that and going into a shot. I use my imagination a lot," Ugbah said.

Like Renford, Ugbah had NCAA dreams. Ugbah averaged 35 points through the first nine games of the 2019-20 season before the pandemic cancelled the NPA (National Preparatory Association) national championships. He hasn't played a real game since.

"I remember thinking it was going to be like a two-week thing, we had nationals at the end of March, and we expected to be back at it," Ugbah said. "That didn't happen. I guess I was optimistic at the start."

Manitoba prohibited any kind of ball-sharing or contact in practice for most of the pandemic, so coach Daron Leonard implemented almost daily virtual sessions with his players.

"Your identity is formed around this idea of who you are as an athlete," Leonard said. "It's the same for any artist or musician or athlete, anyone who does anything at a high level, you find your self-confidence, you find your value and your identity through that sport. So when you lose it, it is hard."

Ugbah, whose family arrived in Winnipeg from Nigeria in 2007, trained on a nearby track with one of his older brothers.

"Some days, it's tough, honestly. I'm not going to lie," the 18-year-old said. "Not playing has been tough, you train for these games, you practise for these games, you put in a lot of work . . . just practising, practising, practising without any game."

Ugbah has started journaling at night. It's helped with the stress.

"It's actually nice, it gets all my thoughts out. I just turn off my phone and write," he said.

Leonard's message to his players is to have faith.

"So, it becomes basically faith in knowing that at some point these things are going to clear up, and at some point we will get back to whatever a new normal becomes, and that your talents are going to continue to reward you, but we don't know when, so you just have to act as if it could be tomorrow."

Leonard took his team to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in December for two weeks of on-court practice in a move that drew the ire of some — despite the fact Leonard received the green light from Algoma Public Health.

What was essentially a training camp at least gave players some video footage they could show to prospective college coaches.

"We're talking to (NCAA) coaches who are saying, 'OK, I need a 6-6 wing who can score the ball and lock down a guy defensively,'" said Jason Thom, director of North Pole Hoops, Canada's longest-running NCAA-approved scouting service.

"We'll say 'Yeah, Emmanuel is your guy. He's long, he's athletic, did great against (Alabama guard) Josh Primo, he's shown all these different things.' And they're like, 'OK, great. Send me some tape.' And I have to say 'Unfortunately, the tape we have is from 14 months ago. And they're like, 'Well, that's just not going to work.'"

The pandemic has created a logjam of talented kids, pushing the NCAA further out of reach. The NCAA granted athletes an extra year of eligibility, players transferring schools don't have to sit out a season, plus kids in U.S. high school programs have at least been playing this year. The result is a sort of triple cohort that has made available spots scarce.

All nine of Northstar's graduating players have opportunities to play next season, in the Canadian university and college systems.

Ugbah will attend Carleton University in Ottawa in the fall.

"(My plan) is just to continue playing basketball and see how far it takes me," he said. "I know I'll get to where I want to go. It's just going to be a different path. I just have to stay optimistic, believe everything happens for a reason. Trust that I'll be fine."

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Jennifer Gu is among Canada's top-10 junior golfers, and started dreaming early on about educational opportunities that sports might help provide.

"I was putting in a lot of time, making a lot of sacrifices in my high-school years for the sport, and I knew that it's expensive to go to college internationally, but it's also a really great opportunity," she said.

The Grade 12 student from West Vancouver, B.C., had been in communication with several NCAA schools, but the pandemic's arrival erased her chances of going head to head with American rivals.

"Some of the issues that we've had is more around the border, because the U.S. system, schools don't really come up here to recruit. We go to them," said Robert Ratcliffe, head coach of Canada's junior squads.

Gu is at least able to practise. She's part of the 14-member junior program playing out of Bear Mountain Resort in Victoria.

"Golf courses are closed in Ontario right now, so a lot of the (Ontario-based juniors) are very pumped to be out here," she said after a recent practice. "But the team hasn't played a tournament in basically a full calendar year, which is unfortunate, because typically we go to Hawaii, we were going to go to Peru and Japan."

Ratcliffe said the two-week quarantine rule for travellers returning home has made playing abroad a challenge. He said some of the young players who've gone to the U.S. to compete have opted to stay there.

While players like Gu would have a finely-tuned schedule for the next few months, summer remains murky.

Gu plans to take a gap year from school to play in some tournaments in the U.S. and elsewhere to get her ranking up.

"It's one of those things, we know she's good enough," Ratcliffe said. "She just has to prove it. And we need the competitive opportunities to prove it."

Gu, who won the PGA of BC Junior Championship in 2020, said there've been times during the pandemic that have felt "really defeating."

"I've definitely stressed a lot about it, as most high school students do when they're thinking about what college you're going to, or what are you going to do with the rest of your life?" she said. "So, it's scary.

"But you know, it's not the end of the world. There are people dying over this. Me not being able to put my name out there is a small issue."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press