Lisbon’s Cam Bourget plows through the line as he is wrapped up by Oak Hill’s Liam Rodrigue during a Class D South semifinal game last season in Lisbon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Softball and baseball championships played on a crisp fall day as the leaves change color? A full afternoon of high school football championship games at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium on a warm early summer day?

It’s possible. The state is slowly reopening from the Covid-19 pandemic, and that includes discussions on how and when to reopen schools. While nothing has been determined yet as far as returning to school this fall across the state, athletic administrators have begun brainstorming ways to ensure any return to classrooms also includes a return to sports for Maine high school athletes.

David Utterback, athletic director at Brewer High School, recently crafted a plan that would allow for participation in each sport sponsored by the Maine Principals’ Association while adhering to safety guidelines recommended by the National Federation of High School Associations.

“We’d like to offer what we can offer safely,” Utterback said.

Maine is not alone in tossing around creative ideas to get sports up and running if students are in classrooms this fall. States across the country are having similar discussions. Athletic directors in Maine’s neighbors in northern New England, Vermont and New Hampshire, have consulted with their counterparts in nearby states.

“We have a task force on a fall return to sports,” said Mike Desilets, the athletic director at Bow High School in Bow, New Hampshire and the president of the New Hampshire Athletic Directors Association. “We want to stay ahead, stay prepared for whatever might happen.”

“I don’t think there’s a state out there that hasn’t had that conversation,” Mike Burnham, executive director, interscholastic division at the Maine Principals’ Association said, noting that right now it’s “nothing more than conversation.”

Burnham noted that Utterback had “put in a tremendous amount of work,” on what such a plan for switching sport seasons would look like but reiterated that it’s the MPA’s goal to have a traditional fall season, with a starting date for preseason of Aug. 17.

“If it’s the only way for us to save a season, that’s when the conversation is worth having,” Burnham said.

Burnham said the MPA’s own guidelines for resumption of activities are likely to be released next week. They are based upon a plan for having a traditional fall season, with a starting date of Aug. 17, and are being designed in consultation with school superintendents, administrative leaders, and the Maine Department of Education.

They will include a detailed plan for how to handle activities in July. Plans for August would come at a later date.

On Thursday, the Department of Education announced the state, rather than local school boards, will determine when students can return to classrooms this fall.

Whenever traditional classes resume, athletic directors not just in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and across the nation agree that sports and extracurricular activities are an important augment to the academic experience.

“Just like everybody, we’re watching the data,” Geri Witalec-Krupa, athletic director at Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, Vermont, said. Witalec-Krupa also serves as Vermont’s liaison to the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. “If we have any form of in-person learning, we have to provide sports in the fall.”

 

FLIP-FLOP SEASONS?

 

Maine’s student-athletes lost the spring season to the coronavirus outbreak. As plans to reopen schools are evaluated, Utterback decided he should be proactive and develop a return to sports model that takes into account the guidelines provided last month by the NFHS.

The NFHS divided sports into three groups. Those that can be played using social distancing or individually are categorized as lower risk. Sports that involve some close contact, but with protective equipment are considered moderate risk. Sports with sustained contact and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants are in the higher risk category.

With those guidelines in mind, Utterback’s proposal shifts some, but not all, sports from the fall to spring and vice versa.

Waterville’s Lauren Pinnette, right, kicks the ball ahead of Hermon’s Emily Treat during the Class B North regional championship last season in Hampden. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

“Are people going to be OK with fall sports as we know them? Obviously, there’s going to be concerns,” Utterback said.

Utterback’s proposal begins with with moving baseball and softball from spring to fall, with throwing workouts to build up arm strength starting on Aug. 2. Golf would begin on Aug. 2 as well, with matches starting on Aug. 10. On Aug. 17, traditional fall sports field hockey and cross country would begin preseason practices, along with tennis, which moves from the spring.

Utterback’s plan would divide the winter sports season into two groups. Winter I would begin in late November, the typical starting time for the season, with basketball, ice hockey, alpine and Nordic skiing, swimming, and indoor track and field.

A Winter II season would commence on Feb. 1, 2021, with wrestling, girls volleyball, and competitive cheering. Beginning those sports later than basketball, with which it shares gymnasium time, would give these student athletes the opportunity to use facilities in what is traditionally a quieter time in schools. By mid-February, the annual high school basketball tournament has moved on to neutral sites around the state, leaving gyms unused.

Like winter, Utterback’s plan would divide spring sports into two seasons. Beginning March 29, Spring I would include boys and girls lacrosse, as well as outdoor track and field. Spring II would begin in late April with football and soccer.

Utterback stressed that his idea is just that, an idea. With superintendents working with the state to form a plan to get schools open, having no backup plan would be disastrous for Maine high school athletes, Utterback said.

“It’s better than the alternative, which is cancellation (of another season),” Utterback said.

Burnham said the concept of a spring-to-fall and vice-versa switch has reached coaches and that the MPA offices has begun to get feedback.

“We’re hearing all the responses to it before it’s even out there as a viable option, but people are talking about it,” Burnham said.

 

CONCERNS 

 

A flip of the sports seasons is an idea with merit, but it also comes with a number of questions that would need to be answered before any plan could be adopted.

Having sports that traditionally have not shared seasons would force students to make a choice. Lacrosse or football? Softball or field hockey? Many schools throughout the state rely on students who play a sport in each season to fill rosters, Utterback said. Many schools also have coaches who coach multiple sports in multiple seasons, and they would be forced to make a difficult choice, too.

Skowhegan athletic director Jon Christopher said schools with artificial turf field could easily play football or soccer in the spring. The majority of schools that play on grass, however, would  run a risk playing on fields typically wet as they thaw in the spring.

“With field conditions the way they typically are in the spring, we would destroy wet fields if we played football, soccer, etc. in the spring,” Christopher said in a text message.

In New Hampshire, asking schools to purchase new protective shields to add to high school football facemasks, no matter when the sport is played, is a concern, Desilets said.

“If we get to the point where we have to put a face shield on every helmet, I don’t think we can do that,” Desilets said.

Cony baserunner Riley Geyer crashes into home as Brunswick catcher Scott Masse tries to make a play during a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference game last season at Kents Hill School. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

In Vermont, the idea of flip-flopping fall and spring seasons has not received much support, Witalec-Krupa said. Many Vermont high schools share fields with town recreation departments. Would town rec programs be expected to flip seasons, too? Would towns be asked to cede time on fields normally used by youth sports programs to high school teams?

“We’d be taking out a lot of sports to play one,” Witalec-Krupa said.

Playing some sports deemed lower risk for coronavirus transmission while shelving others for the year is a possibility, but an option that comes with its own questions. How does a school deal with a turnout two or three times the normal for a sport like golf or cross country? Even if all sports are offered, what happens if more students choose a sport considered a safer option?

“Are we prepared for an influx of students who say ‘Hey, I want to play varsity golf,'” Witalec-Krupa said.

There are factors at play nobody can predict or control. In Ohio, for example, where a flip-flop of the fall and spring sports seasons has been proposed, concerns were raised about spring sports athletes possibly losing a second consecutive season if Covid-19 causes schools to close again this fall.

New Hampshire has discussed intramural sports in each school in varsity play isn’t feasible in the fall. In Vermont, skill sessions with varsity coaches is an option in lieu of a season. Like in Maine, any idea short of a real varsity season is at this point a last resort.

Utterback hopes his proposal can be a starting point for discussions on getting high school sports up and running safely.

“You can’t wait until the end of July or mid-August,” Utterback said. “If we can provide the DOE and CDC information, this will help make decisions.”

As the state examines the coronavirus data, which seems to change weekly, athletic directors, coaches, parents, and especially student athletes, hope for a return to sports in the fall. Even if it looks a little different than usual.

 

Staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM


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