T.J. Maines, the boys’ basketball coach at Cony High in Augusta, has been coaching a club basketball team during the offseason. “We haven’t seen any of this transmission (of COVID-19) through athletics,” he says. “They haven’t had any issues. The Maine Hoops has been running tournaments since the summer and, knock on wood, there haven’t been any cases.” Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

The goal remains the same for those who care about high school sports: Find a way to play during the winter season, recognizing that the coronavirus pandemic will significantly change how sports are played.

“I don’t think anyone is out there purposely trying to make sure we don’t have winter sports. It’s just going to take a long time to get everyone on the same page and come to some agreement on what those guidelines are to do it as safely as possible,” said Lewiston Athletic Director Jason Fuller.

The Maine Principals’ Association is in the process of working with key state agencies to make those decisions and design guidelines. The MPA announced last week that the start of winter practices will be delayed from their original start date of Nov. 16.

The goal for the winter season, said Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director, is “to be able to safely provide activities for kids. We know how important these school-based programs are but they need to be done in the context that we are in a pandemic and it has to be safety first.”

The landscape has changed significantly in Maine just in the past week.

With 101 new COVID-19 cases reported Saturday, the seven-day average in Maine was pushed to 78.3 cases per day, a high-water mark for the state during the pandemic. A spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills said the governor is considering tightening several restrictions, including reducing the size of indoor gatherings, currently limited to 100 people.

When Maine was grappling with what to do for fall sports, eventually leading to the decision to not allow tackle football or indoor volleyball, average daily cases were as low as 14 in mid-August and at 28 on Sept. 14 when official practices began at most schools in Maine.

Now the challenge is to move athletics indoors, with the exception of Nordic and Alpine skiing.

“As far as the fall season goes, we’ve had a great deal of success in terms of being able to offer the outdoor activities, using the protocols provided us,” said Yarmouth Schools Superintendent Andrew Dolloff. “We’ve had nearly 400 kids participating (at Yarmouth) and we haven’t had a single case or quarantine in that population.”

Dolloff said the protocols for increased social distancing, avoidance of locker rooms, coaches and players wearing masks while not engaged in high exertion activities and increased emphasis on hygiene were effective for the fall outdoor sports, “but I don’t know if that has taught us anything about indoor sports.”

Based on the current Community Sports Guidelines, which served as a key guiding document for fall high school sports, wrestling matches between different teams should not be held (indoors or outdoors), and basketball, ice hockey and even team swimming competitions should only be contested outdoors.

“Some of the guidelines have to change,” Fuller said. “We have to be able to play inside and then after that it’s up to the coaches, the players and the families to follow the guidelines.”

Working on the assumption that winter sports do happen in Maine, what will they look like?

IT MAY NOT BE UNTIL 2021

Expect the winter sports season to begin in earnest after the new year. While Maine has yet to set start dates, New Hampshire has announced it will play all winter sports but games won’t begin until Jan. 11. New Hampshire was the lone New England state to play all sports this fall. Its football playoffs began Saturday.

“I don’t expect to start until January,” said T.J. Maines, the boys’ basketball coach and a history teacher at Cony High in Augusta. “January 4th is a starting date you could see happen. In my mind, maybe start practices in January and have games in mid- to late-January.”

SHORTER SCHEDULES AND FEW FANS

Burnham said whether winter sports stick with the regional schedule model used this fall “remains to be seen,” but it would seem unlikely increasing travel will be considered a wise choice.

Even if high school tournaments can be held this winter, there’s little reason to expect spectators will be allowed during the pandemic. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Further, if sports start late, expect schedules to be reduced.

“I think regional schedules, a limited number of games, they seemed to work,” Fuller said.

Maines said he and several of his basketball coaching peers would be happy with a 10-game schedule, especially if a postseason tournament could be run.

“We should not be impacting spring sports, they already lost one season, but is there a window all the way to the middle of March where we can fit in? Even if it’s six weeks, it’s something,” Maines said.

But even if tournaments can be held, there’s little reason to expect spectators will be allowed unless the pandemic peters out rapidly. Even for its outdoor events this fall, the SMAA did not allow any spectators. Other conferences made allowances for a small number of parents.

A growing number of schools have embraced live-streaming as many games as possible.

EXPECT DISRUPTIONS

COVID-19 cases in Maine’s schools have been limited and contained to this point. As of Friday, 128 total cases (students and staff) were reported over the previous 30 days. The largest single outbreak has been 18 cases connected to a charter school in Somerset County that does not participate in MPA-sanctioned athletics.

The state’s color-coded advisory system for schools has had a distinct impact on athletic schedules. If a county is designated “yellow,” meaning an elevated risk of transmission, schools are encouraged to suspend all extracurricular activities. Yellow designations kept York County schools sidelined from the start of school until Oct. 19. Oxford County stopped sports for two weeks in the middle of the season. On Friday, Somerset and Washington counties joined Waldo in the yellow category, ending their fall seasons prematurely.

Other schools have shut down teams or entire athletic programs because of positive cases.

Still, most schools have been able to play their entire, albeit modified, schedules this fall.

“I’m hopeful that now that we’ve gone through the fall, and we haven’t had an outbreak caused by high school sports – we may have had kids test positive but they were not exposed at the event; the event was not the source – that bodes well for the winter,” said Craig Sickels, the Freeport High athletic director.

WHAT’S HAPPENING ELSEWHERE

Twenty-four states are proceeding with high school basketball seasons as normally scheduled, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Another 17 states, including Maine, have delayed or modified their seasons while 10 states have yet to make a decision.

Massachusetts announced this week that it would not hold basketball tournaments. The New England Council, which runs the New England championships in 13 sports, also has announced its season-ending events have been canceled for all fall and winter sports.

In Illinois, the fate of the basketball season is in a political tug-of-war. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced Tuesday the season would be “put on hold,” after a state agency shifted basketball to the high-risk category. The next day, Illinois’ state athletic association announced the seasons would begin as scheduled. That was followed by a statement from Pritzker noting that schools are opening themselves to liability claims.

The NFHS has offered a checklist of simple modifications, centered on sanitizing protocols and social distancing, to mitigate the risk of transmission for basketball game play this year. Among them are increasing the size or number of benches for reserves, changing the jump ball to a coin flip, limiting interaction at the scorer’s table when players are checking into a game, having officials bounce pass the ball to players from more than six feet away on inbound plays and at the free-throw line, and eliminating pre- and post-game handshakes.

Playing basketball or other vigorous activities while wearing masks is not recommended by the NFHS.

“Doing some of those kinds of things can certainly be considered without compromising, if you will, the integrity of the sport as it’s being played,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the NFHS.

Niehoff also noted that limiting or eliminating fans will be another option to consider.

When the MPA announced it was delaying the start of the winter season, it also acknowledged that it is well aware that club and youth sports, notably basketball and ice hockey, have been competing indoors for months.

“We haven’t seen any of this transmission through athletics,” said Maines, noting he is currently coaching his daughter, a junior at Waterville High, in club basketball. “They haven’t had any issues. The Maine Hoops has been running tournaments since the summer and, knock on wood, there haven’t been any cases.”

But, will state agencies view that as evidence sports can be played safely? Will they consider a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison survey that indicated many subsets of Wisconsin high school athletes had a lower rate of infection than the student population at large and that of the 209 COVID-19 positive cases among the athletes, only one case could be linked to sport as the cause of infection?

Or will they instead focus on COVID-19 outbreaks associated with club hockey teams throughout New England? Or fixate on the fine print of the Wisconsin study that indicates football players did have an infection rate greater than the general student population?

FACILITY LIMITATIONS

Indoor track is wholly dependent on college facilities to hold meets, and those facilities are currently closed to the public.

“I can’t see how we can have meet unless the colleges do a complete 180,” said Thornton Academy boys’ indoor track coach George Mendros.s

Without access to college field houses, the indoor track and field season will be in jeopardy for Maine high schools. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

To a lesser but still significant degree, many schools rely on college rinks and pools for their ice hockey and swimming teams.

In hockey-mad Lewiston, Fuller said the greater hockey community is “trying to find solutions,” around reduced ice availability.

“I think we’ll be more cooperative for those who don’t have rinks, but it’s hard because we haven’t gotten into that process because we don’t have a start date.”

Even if the indoor tracks are opened to high school teams large multi-team meets can’t be held because of the state’s 100-person limit on indoor gatherings. Sprint and hurdle races will need to have an open lane between each runner. Field events, because they are contested by one athlete at  time, would be easier to manage in regards to social distancing and field event athletes could reasonably compete while wearing face coverings since each competitive action takes only a few seconds.

Mendros said he does not expect to see indoor track championships this winter. “It’s like the old joke, the chances of that happening are slim and none and slim left town.”

Gathering size limits will similarly hinder swimming when it comes to large or end-of-season meets, but the availability of smaller, community-owned pools increases the chance of having a regular season, including holding virtual meets.

“I don’t necessarily speak for the entire swimming community but think it would be entirely possible to have a virtual meet,” said Ben Raymond, the Cape Elizabeth coach. “You have an official at our pool and one at Greely’s pool, or wherever, and you swim the meet and send the times over and see how it goes.”

Raymond also believes in-person dual meets can be held.

“It would be difficult if the (gathering limit) is say, 50, but yes, you could do it. Have a varsity boys’ meet on Friday and the girls on Saturday and you’d just bring each team’s top 18 to 20 kids,” Raymond said, adding that there’s “plenty of chlorine” in the water to eliminate the risk of transmission while actually swimming.

“There are definitely ways to make it work,” Raymond added. “As long as people are flexible and understand the need to do different things and try different things, you can have a season.”

WHAT ABOUT WRESTLING?

Like football, wrestling is considered a high-risk sport according to the NFHS and Maine’s Community Sports Guidelines. The NFHS is reporting only 14 states are moving forward with no modification to plans for wrestling.

Kevin Gray, coach of Noble High’s Class A champion team, said he knows competitions are happening around the U.S., and that the sports’ governing body is running tournaments. But he does not expect there to be high school wrestling in Maine this year.

“Wrestling doesn’t have that strong a backing in the state. If football couldn’t get it through, then what’s wrestling going to do?” Gray asked.

LEARNING TO ADAPT

Raymond, the Cape Elizabeth swim coach, is also the school’s boys’ soccer and boys’ lacrosse coach.

“Winter is a long season anyway,” Raymond said. “To have a winter with no sports, it will be hard for all the kids. It adds a lot of enjoyment.”

Coaching this fall, Raymond also saw how students – and even parents, he said – learned to adapt.

“The biggest lesson that we can learn is if you give the kids a set of rules that they need to follow to play their sports or do the things they love, they’re going to follow them to the best of their ability,” he said. “Yeah, they need reminders sometimes. We all do. But they’ll do their damnedest to make it work.”

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