Athletics director sees recent years as a ‘positive reset’
Over the past three seasons, the NAIT Ooks have gotten used to change. Some of these changes were as difficult as seeing a star player traded away – or worse, since the biggest was the cancellation of the 2020-21 season due to the pandemic.
But with full competition in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) back on track as of last year, most of the adjustments have the Ooks ready to soar to new heights.
“It’s been a bit of a reset,” says Jordan Richey, athletics and recreation director, “but it's positive.”
That reset comprises a roster featuring program additions, coaching changes and, perhaps most importantly, a shift in how the very concept of an “Ook” is viewed as part of the culture of NAIT.
“It’s not just [the polytechnic’s] 12 teams,” says Richey. “Everyone’s an Ook.”
NAIT Ooks home openers
Soccer: Saturday, Sept. 9 – women at 12 p.m., men at 2 p.m., vs. Lakeland College
Volleyball: Friday, Oct. 2 – women at 6 p.m., men at 8 p.m., vs. Concordia University of Edmonton
Basketball: Saturday, Oct. 21 – women at 6 p.m., men at 8 p.m., vs. Concordia University of Edmonton
Women’s hockey: Friday, Oct. 13 – 7 p.m., vs. SAIT
Men’s hockey: Saturday, Oct. 14 – 6 p.m., vs. SAIT
Two (sort of) new sports
After a hiatus of seven years, NAIT is returning to ACAC cross-country running and golf. The polytechnic entered teams in both sports at their launch in the ’60s. In running, NAIT dominated throughout the following decade, with men and women winning championships in six seasons. Throughout the years, the polytechnic’s golfers have taken seven titles.
“The Ooks are now in every ACAC sport except for indoor track,” says Richey – that is, NAIT competes in nine of 10 sports. “This is a huge accomplishment for the school.” (And, yes, Richey has ambitions for track.)
New approach to coaching
During the pandemic, NAIT switched to a new coaching model that Richey feels will help maintain energy among team leadership, offering students the best possible experience.
In the past, full-time coaches were hired on multi-year contracts for men’s and women’s basketball, hockey and volleyball, where seasons span the academic year. (Other sports with shorter seasons, such as soccer, or that focus on tournaments, such as badminton, have part-time coaches.) Today, full-time coaches are hired seasonally with the possibility of renewal.
The model aligns NAIT with other ACAC schools. What’s more, “It keeps everyone engaged,” says Richey, as well as motivation up and ideas fresh.
“We've got a great group of coaches right now. They're very excited and the players love playing for them.”
A central presence
Recent reorganizing of programs and physical spaces at NAIT have helped to reintegrate the Ooks into campus life, says Richey. Athletics has merged with recreation admin, which includes everything from study spaces featuring desks that double as low-intensity exercise equipment to student intramurals to esports. It also includes facilities such as the gym and arena.
“It makes sense,” says Richey. It’s all part of staying active.
As well, the athletics and recreation office has moved closer to the heart of Main Campus, into a highly visible suite of offices until recently occupied by the NAIT Students’ Association. Its front desk is staffed by student athletes. “We bring a little energy … because we're front facing and more out and about,” says Richey.
The Ooks, he adds, are also front-and-centre in the minds of NAIT leadership, which sees value in athletics beyond the prestige of a championship title.
“Athletics brings a unique vibrancy to campus life that enriches the student experience,” says Gerard Hayes, vice-president of students and campus life. “It fosters a sense of community, where students, instructors and staff rally [around] our teams.”
Regardless of what the 2023-24 season brings in terms of scoresheets, Jordan is already feeling the strength of that community. “We’re in a good spot in athletics,” he says. “The support is unprecedented.”