Jermaine Small is anxious to get back on his home court with the Edmonton Stingers.
While the head coach of the Stingers enjoyed the winning the Canadian Elite Basketball League championship in a modified tournament last year, Small can’t wait to be back in front of fans at the Expo Centre, looking to lead his club to another title.
The Stingers are set to tip off their 2021 season on June 26, pushed back from this upcoming weekend due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With June here, it’s time to get ramped up and get going,” Small said Monday. “The biggest thing is that we’re waiting on and seeing, are the imports that are coming into the country into the various markets. They have to quarantine for 14 days.
“We’re waiting on that and making sure everyone is working out and staying healthy and preparing for our first game, which is on the 26th now. We’re having Zoom talks and planning our camp, and getting those dates all hammered down and actually planning without the word ‘contingency’ in front of it.”
The CEBL originally hoped they would be able to get back on the court in May, which was the case in its inaugural season in 2019. Because of rising infection rates this spring, they pushed back the tip-off date to the first week of June and then moved it back again to later in the month.
With infection rates declining and vaccination numbers on the increase, there is optimism the league will be able to get underway in its respective markets and play a 14-game schedule.
“It’s relieving because now you can plan everything else,” Small said. “Prior to that you just couldn’t plan because you didn’t know what you could do exactly. I feel like some weight has come off our shoulders and it’s more of a reality instead of a guessing game.
“It’s good to have some dates and instead being anxious and it’s now putting it into motion.”
The Stingers will return to the court as champions, having won the seven-team tournament in St. Catharines, Ont., in August, organized in lieu of a regular season due to concerns with the virus.
CBC Sports recently released a documentary on the tournament, Our Game, which chronicles what it was like in the bubble for players, coaches and staff.
The Stingers defeated the Fraser Valley Bandits to claim the CEBL championship and will look to defend their title this season.
“I said to the group (Monday), every great book has a sequel,” Small said. “Last year, I felt we were more the hunters. We had a good 2019, but that (semifinal) loss motivated us to win the championship last year. I think what’s different is that now we’re the hunted.
“We’re going to get everyone’s best game and that means we have to keep the same mentality. The main thing last year, I focused on the process a lot instead of the goal. This year is more about us. We have some new additions that we got and I’m really happy and satisfied with them.”
Going into the season, the Stingers will be considered favourites to win again. They are returning the core of their championship team, including two-time league MVP Xavier Moon, who quickly became a fan favourite in Edmonton.
“I feel the biggest part is that we have so much continuity, that most of our team is back, we’ll hit the ground running and if we focus on us, we can definitely win the championship,” Small said. “Xavier is our engine, that’s just the bottom line. Everyone knows that and I’m sure a lot of people will be preparing for him. Getting him back is big, he makes us go and then we have the muscle with Jordan (Baker) and experience with Adika (Peter-McNeilly) and (Mathieu) Kamba, who is rising really fast.
“We have our core back which is exciting, but we’re so excited to have Moon back. And we’re just so happy to get back and play in the market and have our fans behind us.”
The Stingers are scheduled to open their season at home against the Hamilton Honey Badgers on June 26. They’ll then host the Niagara River Lions on July 2, the Ottawa BlackJacks on July 5 and Saskatchewan Rattlers on July 8. The Rattlers’ first road game is on July 10 at the Saskatchewan Rattlers.
“This has been such a long time coming and it’s so overdue to us,” Small said. “I can only imagine what it will be like in front of our fans and I think this will definitely help. Hopefully, starting with four home games it doesn’t add too much pressure, but it’s going to just be special playing at home. We’re looking forward to playing in our community and in front of the fans.
“There is nothing that we’re looking forward to more than that, being able to share and officially celebrate a championship with the community and the fans and the city of Edmonton. That’s our top priority and we want to make is a special as possible.”
On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest