A sign made of cups on the fence of the Old Orchard Beach athletic fields tells of the frustration for high school teams in York County this fall. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The last interscholastic athletic event at Thornton Academy in Saco was a Unified basketball game on March 10. Two days later, the Thornton Academy Middle School held a track practice in Linnell Gymnasium.

Since then, the athletic facilities at Thornton and other schools in York County have been quiet since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

While high school programs throughout the state have resumed games and practices this fall, those in York County have been shut down. York County has received a “yellow” designation in the state’s color-coded school advisory system, meaning there is an elevated risk of spread of COVID-19.

On Sept. 10, the Maine Principals’ Association announced in its School Sports Guidance that “should a county be designated yellow or red, there should be no practices or games held until which time they are designated green.”

Oxford County was classified as yellow for two weeks, but went back to a green designation on Friday. York is the only other county in Maine that has been designated yellow, and it has been so since the start of the school year.

Athletes in York County actually have been sidelined even longer. They were unable to participate in the MPA’s summer workouts because school superintendents there voted to shut down sports until school resumed.

Many players and coaches are frustrated – and worried they won’t have a fall season at all.

“I feel like the York County athletes … are the forgotten athletes,” said Andrew Carlson, the boys’ soccer coach at Thornton Academy. “It just seems like many other individuals have moved forward and moved on with the high school experience and we’re sort of left on the sidelines. It’s hard for kids to understand that. We’ll support them as best we can. But the best support would be seeing their faces on their fields.”

While athletes are pleased their friends to the north in Cumberland County and to the south in New Hampshire (where all sports are being played) are able to play this fall, it is tinged with the knowledge that they cannot even practice.

Kaleigh Miller, a senior at Thornton Academy, said it is tough watching friends from other counties post videos from their games on social media. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

“It is hard to obviously see people’s tweets and social media reports about their activities, and see the results on TV and in the newspapers, and not be part of it,” said Thornton Academy athletic director Gary Stevens. “It is really hard. We’re all very supportive of others to have those experiences. But now that we are where we are, it is very hard. I don’t pick up the sports section very much.”

Kaleigh Miller, a senior field hockey player at Thornton Academy, said it is difficult watching friends from her club team post videos on social media.

“It’s hard to watch the friends you grow up with, having their Senior Night, having a senior season, and you’re just watching it happening,” she said. “I talk to them, I wish them luck, but it’s hard.”

TIME IS RUNNING OUT

The Maine Department of Education updates its color-coded system each Friday. Rich Buzzell, the athletic director at Marshwood High in Berwick, said earlier last week that Friday’s update would be pivotal as to whether schools in the county would be able to participate in interscholastic sports this fall. The MPA has extended the season to Nov. 14, but time is running out.

York County, as it turned out, remained yellow.

“If we’re yellow this Friday, the interscholastic piece is done for us,” Buzzell said earlier in the week. “If we’re green we can try to get practices in, and find other schools to play, even if it’s just two or three games, and the seniors can have a senior night and a little piece of normalcy in our lives.”

“I don’t think we could salvage much,” added Marshwood boys’ soccer coach Ben Deschenes. “But it would be enough just to get out there.”

That’s all the athletes want, a chance to work with their teammates one more time. Jonah Potter, a senior football player at Wells, said playing games would be secondary to him.

“Winning is a fantastic thing,” he said. “But personally, the part of football I miss the most is that I miss the guys. The second we go green, I would love to go out with my buddies and do a little team bonding. That’s what high school football is all about. When I think about my favorite football memories, a lot of it is at practice, guys doing what we do and having fun with my friends.”

“Even if we don’t get to play full games, maybe we can get out and practice,” said Josh Sewell, a junior soccer player at Thornton Academy.

“I’m not doing a lot of stuff after school. It’s kind of boring.”

MAKING HER CASE TO THE GOVERNOR

Lily Clough, a senior field hockey player at Wells High, was scrolling through Twitter a few weeks ago, noticing all the highlights of high school games that were being played. She decided she had to do something.

“I felt discouraged and figured I might as well just try to make a change because I knew a lot of other athletes were feeling the same,” said Clough.

So she wrote a letter to Gov. Janet Mills, imploring her administration to at least let the athletes in York County practice as a team. “I wish that you would reconsider your guidelines for schools that are in the yellow because while I understand not playing other schools make sense, I wish we could still hold socially distant practices under CDC guidelines,” she wrote.

Wells High senior Lily Clough wrote a letter to Gov. Janet Mills asking her to let high school athletes in York County at least practice with their teammates. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Clough received a response from the governor’s office, affirming the importance of high school sports. But, it also stated, “The determination that school sports should be suspended in the event that a county is designated yellow recognizes the increased risks that come with suspending the six health and safety requirements, including mask wearing and physical distancing, that become difficult in athletic participation.”

Clough wrote a second letter but is still waiting for a reply. And she remains hopeful that the team can get together – whether York County turns green or not.

“I know I would be fine, and others would be fine, wearing masks and staying distant,” she said. “We’re not asking to play other teams because they say that’s not safe. But I feel if we’re allowed to be in school with our teammates wearing a mask and being distant, why can’t we be outside doing the same thing?”

That’s a question that everyone is asking. Coaches are allowed – and encouraged – to have virtual meetings with their players. But they cannot meet in person and school facilities are off limits.

“It is frustrating to see and hear the chances that programs in other counties are getting and our kids are in school but not able to do school things,” said Carlson, the Thornton boys’ soccer coach.

“It’s a really hard thing to explain to high school athletes and their parents. You can be in school eight hours a day but for some reason you can’t be in the fresh air in Maine falls for an hour to do a little training. Each passing week I’ve come to the realization that we’re not going to get anything substantive done.”

Stevens said he would like to have a choice in the decision to at least practice.

“I’d love to have the local choice to extend the school day by another block,” he said. “The kids are screened to get into the facility anyway. And I feel we can keep them as safe as anywhere else. If athletics exist to teach life lessons, and education continues after 3 p.m., I’d like the school day to be elongated by local choice.”

Mike Burnham, executive director of Maine Principals’ Association, said that’s exactly what can be done. According to the guidance provided by the MPA and state agencies on Sept. 10, “The county-level color designations are advisory for school administrators. Those administrators may consider local conditions and make their own decisions.”

Buzzell said that wasn’t entirely clear to him and others when the guidelines came out. “We were led to believe yellow meant red for us athletically and we were not allowed to play or practice,” he said. “It was not made clear that it was a local rule. So we have abided by what was said.”

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO ‘KEEP THEM ACTIVE’

Superintendents across the county, however, have opted not to allow team practices in light of the virus outbreaks. But one York County high school, Old Orchard Beach, has made the decision to offer a different form of after-school activities to its students.

Four days a week, for 90 minutes at a time, students gather on a practice field next to the school and work out. They wear masks. They socially distance – 14 feet apart per Maine Department of Education recommendations for physical education classes. They are overseen by about 10 instructors, either coaches or teachers from the school.

“It’s not sports,” said Dean Plante, the athletic director, football coach and girls’ basketball coach at OOB. “It’s basically extended PE and Wellness for anybody in the school that wants to. We’re just trying to get students in general out playing.

“We’re trying to think outside the box to get these kids thinking, to keep them active and be mentally challenging enough to keep them fresh.”

An Old Orchard Beach High student participates in a workout after school on Tuesday. The school holds the optional workouts four days a week, following the guidelines for physical education classes established by the Maine Department of Education. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The students are divided into small groups to work out at stations, getting in agility, core or cardiovascular workouts. They often end the session with a game of some kind: relay races or kick ball. Recently, Plante brought in a crossfit coach to put them through a workout.

John Suttie, the RSU 23 superintendent and principal at Old Orchard Beach, said: “It was important for me that my coaches connect with the kids after school in an informal, fun way. It’s that student-coach connection that I didn’t want to lose. And it’s going great. The kids are happy and engaged. It’s amazing how much joy they are getting by taking in the little connections that they have.”

The students certainly appreciate it.

“This is as close to a form of  normalcy as we can get right now,” said senior Shani Plante, a soccer and basketball player. “Obviously it’s not the same as a normal soccer season and not even close, but being active with my friends is kind of helping me feel like this is a normal senior year.”

“Doing this is great for us,” Ryan Crockett, the Seagulls star senior basketball player who also plays football. “Especially since some of the football players are here, this would have a been a very important season for us.”

Erica Plasse, an alum of Old Orchard Beach High and a trainer at Beacon Fitness, leads a crossfit workout with Old Orchard students after school on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Kellen Zecchinelli, a junior cross country runner for the Seagulls, said he understands why areas such as Sanford, which has a high COVID-19 case count, would be limited, but not Old Orchard Beach, which has a far lower count.

“I think they should single out certain schools in York County to not be able to participate,” he said. “But this is OK for me because I have another year, so this is good conditioning and good for the coaches to connect with the players.”

Plante said the workouts are more important for her mentally. “I can go to the gym, I can do other physical things,” she said. “But to be with people I’ve grown up with is comforting.”

And not just for the athletes. Shauna Tolley, OOB’s field hockey coach, said, “We need them just as much as they need us right now, being out on the field and working out and having that familiar feeling of fall.”

ACCEPTANCE … AND HOPE

Tim Roche, the football coach at Wells, said he hates every minute that he’s not with his players, but that he will not give up hope of getting together before the fall season ends on Nov. 14.

“If you tell me on Nov. 12 I can do something, I will,” he said. “I’m going to go until the drop dead date. I don’t care if we keep score, I  just want to go out with kids and have some fun with them.”

Interestingly, several students said they understand why they have been shut down and accept it.

“In this area there have been a lot of positive cases and if they believe the best thing for us is to not have sports right now, I support that,” said Wells’ Potter. “We need to be like one big team, all work together to do our part and do whatever we can to help people. And if that’s us not playing sports right now, that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Marshwood senior soccer player Malcolm Connell said, “Even though all of us want to be back on the field, I think keeping ourselves safe and healthy, along with community, is the most important thing now. It’s hard but it’s reasonable.”

Many have expressed the hope that, like football and volleyball, York County athletes might be granted a wedge season between the winter and spring to play at least some of the games they’re missing this fall.

But it would be nice to be out on the fields now.

“Of course we want to,” said Marshwood’s Buzzell. “The coaches want to, the players want to, the parents want to be out there. We’re jealous of the rest of the state.”

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