Scarborough High goalkeeper Reid Deniso goes up for a loose ball during practice this week. The fall schedule for soccer teams begins Friday, and games will feature modifications to enhance spacing among players. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Interscholastic soccer and field hockey games return to Maine on Friday, marking the first time most athletes have played in a high school contest since February.

As with so many things during the coronavirus pandemic, how those games look, feel and are played will be far different than normal.

Seasons will be shorter, and there won’t be any sanctioned postseason playoffs. Athletes will not be required to wear masks during competition, but coaches, game officials, support personnel and players on the sidelines will be wearing them. And few, if any, spectators will be allowed.

The fall sports schedule, already delayed by nearly a month, is notable for what it does not include. Tackle football and indoor volleyball will not be played. And in York County, site of recent COVID-19 outbreaks, high school sports are on hold.

For teams that can play, coaches remind players before every practice to wear their masks, keep 6 feet apart, keep their gear and water bottles separated, and make sure every player has completed daily screening questions to allow them to participate and is clearly marked in attendance.

“Once you get going, you’re back to it. It’s soccer, you’re playing the game we love and working toward a common goal and trying to maximize every single player’s ability,” Portland High girls’ soccer coach Curt Chapin said. “What does change is the before, the after, and the middle with the breaks.”

Portland opens its season on Friday afternoon, playing rival Deering at Fitzpatrick Stadium. Both teams are members of the Southwestern Maine Activities Association, which has decided to not allow any spectators at athletic events this fall. Other conferences, notably the Western Maine Conference and the Kennebec Valley Conference, will allow a few fans from the home team but every event must keep the total number of people – players, coaches, staff and fans – below the state-mandated cap of 100 people for outdoor gatherings.

“It’s going to be different looking up there at the stands, especially playing a rival like Deering, with no fans in the stands,” Chapin said.

Cheverus High field hockey players, left to right, Samantha Snow, Taylor Krieger and Taylor Tory chase down a loose ball while running drills at practice earlier this week. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

When the Maine Principals’ Association and key state agencies, including the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services, finally agreed on return to play guidelines for interscholastic sports on Sept. 10, tackle football and indoor volleyball were determined to be sports with too great a risk of transmission of the virus to be played.

Football is allowed to play 7-on-7 flag football games. Games featuring schools such as Freeport, Gray-New Gloucester and Brunswick are scheduled to begin Oct. 2. The larger SMAA schools are still working out a schedule.

Travel for soccer and field hockey has been limited to tight regions, essentially within a county, meaning there will be more cross-conference and cross-class competition. And the regional-only restriction led the principals association to decide to not sponsor playoffs for those sports.

That means the Yarmouth High boys’ soccer team will not be able to defend its 2019 Class B championship, the program’s fifth in six years.

“We just hammered home the point that we’re grateful to be playing and we’re going to look at what we have, not what we don’t,” Yarmouth coach Mike Hagerty said.

Soccer also will see some sport-specific changes. This year, only five players from each team will be allowed into the penalty area on corner kicks. Typically, the entire defensive team would be in the box and nearly the entire offensive team, particularly as time wound down in a close game. Also, defenders cannot form a tightly packed “wall” on free kicks, and slide tackles are not allowed when near a player (but can be executed in an effort to keep a ball from going out of bounds, if no opposing player is nearby). There will also be a sanitizing and hydration break at 20 minutes.

Scarborough High boys’ soccer players practice at the school on Wednesday. This fall, defenders cannot form a tightly packed “wall” on free kicks and players must keep mouth guards fully in their mouths at all times. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Hagerty said those changes won’t affect play much. Based on a scrimmage his team played against Cheverus on Tuesday, players will have to learn to keep their mouth guards fully in their mouths at all times. That is a pre-COVID rule that was seldom enforced when a player was away from the action.

“Now the second an official sees your mouth guard is out, you’re sent to the bench to sanitize it and you can come back at the next substitution break,” Hagerty said.

Field hockey is taking similar precautions. A referee can remove a player from the game if he or she sees that player removing her mouthpiece. The player can return after the mouth guard is sanitized. The sport is adding a minute between quarters to allow players access to water bottles and masks before meeting with a coach.

Other changes to field hockey include allowing only one player to substitute into a game at a time, to enhance social distancing. The penalty box chair has been eliminated. Instead, a player who has been asked to sit out for a flagrant penalty will take a knee in a socially distanced area.

Cross country and golf, the other two fall sports being offered, are deemed low risk, so those teams can travel within the state, allowing for the possibility of state championships. Golf, with a significantly abbreviated schedule, does have state championships planned for Oct. 9 and 10. Cross country has not set a championship date or format. A starkly limited field of runners/teams and the use of multiple sites would seem necessary. In 2019, a total of 650 athletes competed in the Class A, B, and C championships, all held at Twin Brook Recreation Area in Cumberland.

And looming over everyone’s season is the possibility that it could be cut short, or altered at a moment’s notice, if a school or area experiences an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

York County schools are feeling that effect right now. The county was determined to be “yellow” in terms of risk of virus transmission by the Department of Education on Sept. 4. On Sept. 10, four days before the first official day of practice, those schools learned that a “yellow” meant they had to suspend athletics, and teams couldn’t even practice. York continues to be hit by numerous outbreaks, making it unlikely the color code will change when the department announces its biweekly assessment Friday.

“It just sets your program back in general, in this ongoing cycle of we can’t meet, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Marshwood boys’ soccer coach Ben Deschene said at the time. “If we could at least meet with players and do some individual on-the-ball stuff, not all would be lost, but this just shuts us down completely.”

For the athletes and coaches who can compete, this fall is a relief, especially after having the entire spring season wiped out by the pandemic, and a month-long delay to the fall season’s start.

“I think everyone is just so grateful to be here with our teammates and to have something to look forward to and to get excited about,” said Izzy Dyer, a senior on the Falmouth High girls’ soccer team. “Because COVID has definitely taken away some of those opportunities. So we have this one and we can make something out of it, so that’s exciting.”

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