WINNIPEG -- The Northstar Preparatory Institute describes itself as a basketball program for highly skilled athletes who plan to continue playing ball at the college or university level.

Under current health restrictions, recreational activities and sports facilities are off-limits in Manitoba.

But earlier in December, Head Coach Daron Leonard and some members of his basketball prep team went to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. for training.

“Many of the athletes who joined our community prior to our shutdown are doing so to secure post-secondary scholarships that would not otherwise be available to them,” said Leonard in a statement.

“This type of opportunity was facilitated in order to keep their future academic and athletic pursuits alive.”

Leonard said players who chose to travel to Ontario did so of their own volition, and arranged for their own travel.

He said players were tested when they arrived in Ontario, and were responsible for knowing and adhering to all pre-approved regional health guidelines.

“This was not a decision that was taken lightly, and significant and careful planning went into ensuring the highest level of safety for every individual, especially amid COVID-19.”

The program is based out of Churchill High School, and requires a scholastic affiliation in order to qualify as a prep basketball program.

The Winnipeg School Division said Northstar’s activities at this time are outside of the normal school year affiliation because all activities in schools are cancelled due to COVID-19.

Executive Director for Basketball Manitoba, Adam Wedlake said Northstar isn’t one of its members, but it reached out to advise against the trip east.

“Every bit of society needs to step up and help take the pressures off the health-care system and to adhere to the guidance that we’re all following, be it personal or sport related.”

Wedlake said Basketball Manitoba hasn’t facilitated any games or practices since code red restrictions came into place.

A parent of a team member who didn’t want to be named said most ambitious athletes have an extremely limited time window to impress coaches as a step towards better education, or to compete at a pro level.

Leonard said all the parents who have students in the program were aware of the public health guidelines, and decided for themselves if their children could go on the trip.

He believes the mental health and physical health of young people have never been more important.

“Our group of players and parents have been trying to work within the recommendations as best we can in order to balance inactivity with what amounts to pursuing potentially life-changing post-secondary opportunities for many of these athletes who may otherwise fall between the cracks.”