High school athletes in Maine will have to wait until the end of April for the start of spring sports practices, in the wake of a decision Friday by the the Maine Principals’ Association’s Board of Directors and Interscholastic Management Committee. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

Anthony Poole knew the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on athletics was headed his way. Now the South Portland High second baseman is wondering if a decision to delay spring sports for a month will buy enough time to salvage some of his senior season.

“The last few days things escalated fast,” Poole said. “We had a group chat going and were texting (Thursday) night and it was upsetting to see everything unfold. We were just hoping for the best.

“I mean, we saw this coming, with college baseball and UMaine. I thought this was a good possibility. Hopefully, we can still get in a few games.”

On Friday, the Maine Principals’ Association’s Board of Directors and Interscholastic Management Committee decided to delay the start of preseason practice for spring high school sports in Maine until April 27 in response to the virus outbreak.

The decision was made less than 24 hours after MPA officials said the spring season was on as scheduled. Conditioning practices for baseball and softball were supposed to start on March 23, with all other spring practices scheduled to start on March 30.

“Everything changes as updates come to us,” said Holly Couturier, executive director of the MPA’s Professional Division. “We felt this was the best call. Literally, everything is changing on such a fast basis, we’re just trying to be responsible to the kids.”

The decision was not completely unexpected coming in the wake of a whirlwind of announcements that shut down professional and major college sports around the country.

Couturier said the MPA’s decision did not come as a directive from any other state office. “We’ve just been listening to schools from around the state, the different leagues, what everyone is doing, looking at schedules,” she said. “And we decided, ‘Let’s make this call now and continue to monitor the situation and make changes as need be.'”

MPA spring sports committee members will meet Monday to discuss how the season will look once it begins. At that point, leagues can likely begin to figure out their new schedules.

“So there’s more to come,” said Couturier. “We are monitoring things and are in close contact with the Maine CDC and Governor’s office. This is collectively a team effort.”

John Suttie, the high school principal and superintendent of schools in Old Orchard Beach, was involved in Friday morning’s meeting. He said the April 27 start date was chosen because it will be the first day of school after the scheduled April vacation week.

Suttie knows many people are wondering if there will even be a spring sports season at Maine high schools.

“I don’t know what it looks like right now,” he said. “If we can get the number of cases under control and identify how many positives there are and have success limiting new cases then maybe we have a shot.

“But it’s going to take action right now. Like, right now.”

School closures might dictate any future plans. At least seven states, along with several major metropolitan school districts, have ordered schools to be closed.

“We’re going to look to the Maine Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control for guidance,” Suttie said, “but given what’s going on nationally regarding schools, that certainly wouldn’t be a surprising decision.”

Joe Schwartzman, the athletic director at Kennebunk, called the sports-season delay “the best-case scenario.”

“Six weeks off, whatever happens, it’s a proactive decision,” he said. “We have a date, we’ll see what happens. The season could still be canceled. But we’ve still got plenty of time after spring break. To me, the schedule and figuring out what to do is the easy part.”

Student-athletes will be able to work out at high school facilities. But without formal practices, they will be on their own in terms of training and preparation. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

During the delay, student-athletes will be allowed to use school facilities, Suttie said. But they will not be able to have direct supervision from their in-season coach.

“This is like a hands-off period extended, which kind of sucks,” said Monmouth softball coach Dave Kaplan. “We can’t get together with the team, even informally.”

The delay also means any planned spring break travel trips for baseball or softball will be cancelled, said Yarmouth High Principal Eric Klein. His baseball team’s trip was canceled. The South Portland baseball team had its April trip to Florida cancelled on Friday according to Athletic Director Todd Livingston. Several other schools had already made the decision to scrap travel trips.

Word of the delayed start quickly circulated through schools across the state on Friday.

Winthrop Athletic Director Joel Stoneton said he talked to coaches and student-athletes Friday in school, and while some expressed disappointment, no one was surprised.

“They saw this coming,” Stoneton said. “I don’t think they were surprised. The kids went home (Thursday) and saw March Madness was cancelled and more sports leagues were shutting down. The writing was on the wall. I know in talking to some seniors, they’d like closure, and hopefully that happens.

“This is the right decision to do, though. This gives everyone some time to gather more information and see what can be done.”

Stoneton added that the Mountain Valley Conference plans to meet Wednesday to discuss what a spring sports season could look like should it begin April 27.

Monmouth co-coach Dave Kaplan talks to his niece Emily Kaplan during a game last season in Monmouth. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

Kaplan said he was disappointed there would be no full season.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “We found out (Friday) morning and I had to gather all my thoughts. My first take is, I hate it but I understand it. We have to put the safety of everyone first. This no joke. I know there are people out there who think it is, but it’s not.”

Kaplan said teams will need a minimum of two weeks of practice before playing a game.

“I think realistically you are looking at an 8-game schedule,” he said. “It’s going to be the second week in May before you could play a game, if that. Hopefully, we can have a season. I know my girls are major bummed. For some of them, it’s the only sport they do.”

Rich Buzzell, the athletic director at Marshwood High in South Berwick, said he felt “sad for the kids” but that this was the right call in unprecedented times.

“It’s definitely uncharted territory for all of us,” he said. “The landscape changes by the hour.”

– Staff writer Mike Lowe, and Bill Stewart and Drew Bonifant of Central Maine Newspapers contributed to this report.

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