Like the outcome or not, the fate of fall high school sports has been decided in Maine.

And the arduous decision-making process, which included the cancellation of the fall football and indoor volleyball seasons, makes one thing clear: It could be even tougher to get a winter season up and running during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m trying to look ahead,” said Mike Gray, the girls’ basketball coach at Gardiner High. “What has to change between now and December, even if we push it back to January? Increased testing and tracing? A matter of our cases staying consistently low with school back in session? The immediate response of a lot of people is if volleyball can’t be played inside, there’s no winter sports. I’m hoping that’s not the case.”

Basketball is in doubt this winter based on current guidelines governing Maine high school sports during the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Based on the current Return to Competitive Athletics and Activities guidelines, agreed upon by the Maine Principals’ Association and state officials on Thursday, the only winter sports that could hold competitions per usual would be Nordic and Alpine skiing. Indoor track conceivably could have field event-only competitions in a field house setting if fewer than 50 people are involved.

As volleyball found out, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education, along with the Maine School Superintendents Association, do not believe athletic competitions should be held indoors. That goes for indoor practices, as well.

Sports labeled moderate risk – basketball, ice hockey, swimming, competitive cheerleading and track running events – can only hold competitions outdoors. The high-risk sport of wrestling, like football, isn’t cleared for any type of competition.

“I can’t see winter sports starting on time if they’re playing at all,” said George Mendros, the Thornton Academy boys’ indoor track coach. “And then track has a unique situation – and swimming and ice hockey are a little similar – in that every track meet, every track league and every state championship uses a college facility for their competitions.”

Currently, those college facilities are closed even to their on-campus communities.

Todd Hanson, the boys’ basketball coach at Brunswick High, said when he read the state’s current Community Sport Guidelines – which formed the basis of the interscholastic plan – he recognized the outlook for basketball is bleak.

Having a winter season “is going to be very hard,” Hanson said.

Sam Farrell, the Brunswick girls’ basketball coach is more optimistic.

“I think the biggest thing is that they will have so much more data from these fall sports, not just in Maine, but also from the bigger states that have already been playing,” Farrell said. “All that data coming in will give us a lot more to look at. And I’m hoping we get good news from kids being back in school and fall sports.”

How that data has been and will be used to determine risk of transmission during sport, and the unwillingness of state officials to detail the metrics, is a source of great frustration for coaches.

“In my mind, it just seems like we’ve gotten to the point where the powers to be don’t feel safe to move forward unless there’s a cure, or a vaccine or the virus goes away,” Hanson said.

“I would like the leaders to say, ‘Here’s what needs to be done to play winter sports indoors. Here’s what needs to be done to play football in March. Here’s what the (virus) numbers need to look like,” said Bonny Eagle football coach Kevin Cooper, who is also an assistant boys’ basketball coach.

Cooper has gone through the painful process of telling his football team they wouldn’t have a fall season.

“The athletes I deal with, their next sport season is winter. And for those kids, a basketball player, a wrestler, what’s telling them they’re going to be able to play their next sport season? There’s really nothing,” Cooper said.

“I don’t know how someone wouldn’t at least be concerned,” said John Trull, the Bonny Eagle boys’ basketball coach. “With an outside contact sport (football) being pushed back, and me a coach of an indoor contact sport in the winter, I’m trying to be hopeful, but I am concerned. And volleyball, that is more concerning actually.

“I just think there needs to be a set of guidelines for what needs to happen. I don’t know if it’s cases, or a school-by-school basis. I don’t know the guidelines. Whoever is making the rules needs to make them clear.”

One consistent theme voiced by coaches and athletic administrators is that the time for all the constituent groups to start working on a winter plan is now, based on how long it took to get a plan for the fall in place.

“The one good thing that came out of this is that the MPA did say they were going to start right now on the winter stuff, so everyone is on the same page,” said James Coffey, the athletic director at Falmouth High.

This year the fall sports season will start three weeks late, at a minimum.

The sport that will lose the greatest percentage of its season is golf, which seems ironic given the state has allowed the sport to be played by golfers of all ages since May 1. This year golf will have a regular season consisting of 11 available dates (excluding Sundays) between Sept. 23 and Oct. 6. High school golf teams normally would have already played half of their 10-match regular seasons by Sept. 23, said Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens.  The state team and individual championships will be combined; they are scheduled for Oct. 9 (Class A) and Oct. 10 (B and C).

Similarly, cross country now has a three-week regular season that runs from Sept. 25 to Oct. 17. Regional and championship meet formats have not been set.

Soccer and field hockey, the two other sports that received the go-ahead this fall, will play a maximum of 10 games between Sept. 25 and Nov. 14. There will be no postseason playoffs.

For football and volleyball, the two sports that have lost their traditional season, the ability to play in the spring hinges on whether winter sports are played successfully.

“We’ve got to think creatively how to schedule that, how to get volleyball, football and the spring sports going,” said Chad Foye, the athletic director at Messalonskee High in Oakland. “We may have to move farther into summer with some of those things. We’re going to have to be creative, We’ve got to work around our climate too. March and April are both pretty unpredictable.”

“I think anything can be done,” said Falmouth’s Coffey. “Volleyball is really easy. You can start up after basketball. The gyms are available from the middle of February through most of March and there’s still room to push the start of the spring season back a couple of weeks and still have a full season. And if there’s any committee that can figure out a way to do things, it’s the (MPA) Football Committee. I hope they come up with something.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe contributed to this story.


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