All fall sports have been canceled at the University of Southern Maine, and winter sports such as basketball will not be played until at least January. Last season, the USM men’s and women’s basketball teams played 11 games before the holiday break. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For Al Bean, the University of Southern Maine’s athletic director, every discussion surrounding the feasibility of playing college sports this fall always centered on one question: Could the health and safety of his athletes and staff be protected?

In the end, the variables, complexities and unknowns of coping with the pandemic kept bringing Bean to the same answer. No.

Wednesday morning, USM announced it was canceling all athletic competition through the end of 2020 in response to the coronavirus outbreak. That means no fall sports, and – at a minimum – the elimination of a significant portion of the basketball, hockey and wrestling seasons, too.

“My university president said safety is the No. 1 priority and I’ve obviously thought long and hard about this, and every night the last couple of weeks, I kept thinking, I’m not sure we should really be doing this,” Bean said.

USM, which competes primarily in the NCAA Division III Little East Conference, is the first school within the University of Maine System to halt its athletic programs going into the 2020-21 season. Bowdoin and Bates, two private institutions and members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, have also canceled athletic competition until 2021.

“This is a heartbreaking decision,” said USM President Glenn Cummings in a press release. “Our student athletes make extraordinary contributions to the entire USM community. We look forward to working with our student athletes to support their growth and optimize their NCAA eligibility.”

USM and UMass Boston are the only Little East schools to cancel fall sports so far. Two Division I leagues that include New England schools – the Ivy League and Patriot League – have eliminated fall sports for all their member schools.

Bean said UMaine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy told the presidents of the seven schools in the system last week that each institution should make its own decision regarding athletics.

The University of Maine, the state’s only Division I program, remains focused on “the health and safety of our students, staff, and the community,” and is “engaged in conversations, both with the UMaine System and each of our conference offices, as we work to develop plans for all contingencies for the fall season,” said Tyson McHatten, the school’s senior associate director of athletics for external operations, in an email.

University of Maine-Augusta has yet to make a decision about this fall, said Athletic Director Jennifer Laney. The University of Maine-Farmington did not respond to requests for information about its plans.

USM’s decision will eliminate the 2020 season for men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey, volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country. Golf and women’s tennis are primarily fall sports programs, but they do have some competitions during the spring semester.

“Sadly, I do (agree with the decision),” said field hockey coach Bonny Brown-Denico. “I just think there are so many risks people don’t realize. I just read something recently about even athletes, if they were to get (COVID-19), they don’t know if they ever are going to be able to recover fully to the way they were. You don’t want that to happen.”

Men’s cross country coach Ryan Hackleroad said, “With so many of the conferences and schools in New England calling it quits in the fall and some of the restrictions being placed on us, in terms of how far we could travel, how many competitors could be in an event, it wasn’t going to be the type of season that we’d like to give our athletes.”

Still, the news was impactful.

“I’m physically shaking right now talking about it,” Brown-Denico said. “It’s just so unexpected, I guess. I don’t think people know how they’re going to deal with it. It’s a challenge, for sure.”

The winter sports of basketball, hockey, wrestling and indoor track will not compete until at least January, which will likely lead to a significant reduction in games played. Prior to the holiday break in the 2019-20 season, USM men’s hockey played 12 games, women’s hockey played 13, and both men’s and women’s basketball played 11 games.

Bean acknowledged that the vast majority of young people infected with COVID-19 – the disease caused by the virus – do recover. But he said he was warned by the university’s medical personnel of increasing evidence that infection can cause long-term lung and heart damage. Plus, there is the risk of transmission to others, including coaches and staff who could be at greater risk.

And then there’s the worst-case scenario.

“I told my president that, ‘What if we do this and one of our kids or staff gets this and actually dies? I’m going to have a hard time living with this.’ I’m not sure it’s a decision I want to make, and it could happen. … I’m looking at it really serious. This is a global pandemic and a national health crisis we’re dealing with.”

Primary considerations in the decision, Bean said, were the risks associated with long-distance bus rides; that competition with conference opponents in Massachusetts and Rhode Island would not be permitted because of quarantine rules; and the difficulties of testing for COVID-19. That approximately half of USM’s nearly 500 athletes live off campus was also a factor.

“And I think it’s sort of proven, it’s pretty hard to keep this age group from doing the right things. They haven’t exactly been a model of staying away from each other and practicing safety,” Bean said.

Samantha Ellis, a junior from New Vineyard and the leading returning scorer on the field hockey team, said the decision wasn’t surprising.

“It was kind of inevitable and I had been hearing about other colleges, so I kind of knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know when,” she said. “We were pushing for having those two weeks for preseason, and then today it was just kind of an all-of-a-sudden decision, which was really strange for me. I thought it was going to be more over time.

“I think it’s kind of sad. It really (won’t) hit until I think fall starts when I’m not playing, because I have every fall for years now. I think it’s not going to be real until it gets to that point. But I really feel for the seniors.”

USM will begin working on ways to keep athletes engaged in their sport this through closely monitored practices, Bean said, though exactly what form that will take is still to be decided.

“It will probably start out with a lot of social distancing and small group skill stuff,” said men’s soccer coach Mike Keller. “We’ll be in really good shape for next year because we’ll be doing fitness all year.”

– Kennebec Journal staff writer Drew Bonifant contributed to this report.

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