Maranacook’s Garit Laliberte throws the ball before Mt. Ararat’s Daniel Jackson could reach him during the second quarter of last season at the Topsham Fairgrounds. The pass was a 65-yard touchdown pass to Isac Philbrook. Times Record file photo Buy this Photo

Maranacook football coach Jordan DeMillo got excited when he saw his team would open the 2020 season at Spruce Mountain.

Spruce Mountain, which is new to eight-man this season, formed when Jay and Livermore high schools merged. DeMillo is a Jay High School graduate.

“It would be going home for me. I think it would be a great game,” DeMillo said.

However, DeMillo and everyone else associated with Maine high school football is hoping for a season of any kind. As the state continues to monitor the Covid-19 pandemic, football coaches and administrators wrestle with how to play a game that by nature runs squarely against social distancing.

Last week, the National Federation of State High School Associations released guidelines for states to use in restarting high school athletic activities. Among the points of emphasis made by the NFHS are decreasing potential exposure to respiratory droplets, increased testing for Covid-19, limiting travel, and being prepared for disruptions in the season due to outbreaks.

The NFHS recommended pre-workout screenings for athletes and coaches, limiting practice groups to no more than 10 by creating practice “pods,” including the same group of athletes and coaches each day, and maintaining six feet between each person. Facilities should be thoroughly cleaned often and equipment such as clothing, water bottles or towels should not be shared.

As expected, football was included among sports of higher risk of transmission. Football is a sport in which most players on the field come into direct contact with at least one other player on every single play. By rule, tackling a ball carrier to end the play, football is impossible to play and follow social distancing guidelines.

Joel Stoneton, athletic director at Winthrop High School and a member of the Maine Principals’ Association football committee, said the committee expects to meet in June or July to discuss the feasibility of starting the season on time with preseason workouts Aug. 17, and any changes to the schedule.

MPA director Mike Burnham said the MPA is reviewing the NFHS guidelines for all high school fall sports teams, including football.

Winslow coach Mike Siviski enters his 36th season in 2020. He said there are concerns in his sport and the transmission of the virus.

“How can you stop it? You can’t stop it. In locker rooms, they’re close together. When kids are in the huddle, half the time they’re in oxygen debt and they’re breathing hard. These are things that scare me,” Siviski said.

Dr. Rob Stevens practices family medicine and sports medicine in Oakland. Stevens thinks Maine has some checkpoints to reach before it can safely begin a high school football season.

“Where we stand right now, probably no. As we’ve seen, things can change quickly,” Stevens said. “Even if you don’t have the ball, you’re touching other players on every play. Lineman are breathing into each other’s faces… We have to get kids in school before we get them on a field.”

Monitoring how youth baseball and softball leagues across the state open up in the coming weeks is a start. Those sports require much less contact than football, Stevens noted, but still can provide an example of safely getting teams together for games and practices.

A zero risk scenario is unrealistic, Stevens said. but there are ways schools can minimize risk of transmission. Smaller practice groups, shorter bus rides, and use more buses for road trips, Stevens said, echoing the NFHS’s recommendations.

“We don’t quite understand the risk of these asymptomatic people,” Stevens said.

 

CHANGES TO THE SEASON?

Cony football coach B.L. Lippert said coaches and administrators are discussing what a 2020 season could look like, if played. Among the concerns raised is how to have a season if parts of the state are unable to begin practices, while other areas are cleared to proceed. For example, is it fair that a team in one part of the state to practice, while a team in another can’t because there is community transmission of the coronavirus?

“I don’t want to get my hopes up, and we get a week into the season and a team has a kid get it and gets shut down,” Lippert said.

Coaches say starting preseason practices when schools open, rather than mid-August, is one possible change to the schedule. Other changes being discussed are: Cutting the regular season to six games, playing a 7-on-7 schedule that would reduce contact, or rebuilding the schedule to limit travel.

Winslow is scheduled to open the season at York. While Winslow and Cony are in different classes, their proximity would make an attractive short trip for either team, rather than a long bus ride to an opponent more than 100 miles away.

There’s a lot of questions and plenty of uncertainty, but Lippert hopes a blueprint for reopening is possible as schools monitor what happens in other states that will hold workouts.

At Lawrence, coach John Hersom said he and athletic director Dave Packard have discussed opening the school’s small weight room. That would entail limiting the number of athletes who can use it at one time, as well as making sure all equipment is cleaned thoroughly before and after use. DeMillo said he’s heard of professional and college football teams using special face masks to limit exposure, but does not see that as a realistic option for high school programs.

“Is there a high school in Maine that can afford specialty facemasks? I struggle to get new uniforms every 10 years,” DeMillo said.

Cony football coach B.L. Lippert calls an offensive play during a scrimmage against Lawrence on Aug. 24, 2019 at Alumni Field in Augusta. Kennebec Journal file photo Buy this Photo

Maine’s eight-man football league surged in growth, from 10 teams in 2019’s inaugural season to 26 teams for 2020. To accommodate shorter bus rides, some eight-man teams could be asked to play an 11-man scrimmage.

“Would I be comfortable playing Winthrop in a controlled scrimmage? Probably, if it gets my kids on the field,” said DeMillo, whose Maranacook team enjoyed a successful debut eight-man season last year.

If the number of players allowed on the sidelines each game is limited to allow for more social distancing, that would affect larger schools more than smaller ones, Stoneton said.

“We’re not more than 30 kids anyway, so that wouldn’t be an issue for us,” said Stoneton, who oversees Winthrop’s coop team with Monmouth and Hall-Dale.

The next big date on the football calendar is July 6, when teams will be allowed to have non-contact workouts.

“I want to practice July 6 because I want them to gain some sense of normalcy. I worry about their mental health,” Lippert said, adding he’s heard from numerous players eager to practice in any capacity.

Added DeMillo: “We have kids who are out of school and rearing to go.”

For now, coaches are in a holding pattern, waiting to see if Covid-19 cases increase or decrease in Maine, and what further guidance comes from the state CDC and MPA. To Lippert, the situation is a chance to show his team to never take the game for granted.

“This is a reminder it’s not the be all and end all, but it’s important to us,” Lippert said.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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