Most high school winter sports in Maine – including girls’ hockey – will be able to start practices on Dec. 14 and games starting Jan. 11 under a plan announced Friday by state officials and the Maine Principals’ Association. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine updated its Community Sports Guidelines on Friday, paving the way for high school winter sports practices to start on Dec. 14, while also stating that club sports such as youth basketball and hockey should shut down until the same date.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the guidelines were updated to align school-based sports with community-based sports, such as club sports teams.

She was adamant that club sport programs, some of which have been playing throughout the summer and fall, should stop playing based on the updated guidelines. State officials also changed the wording of the guidelines, calling them requirements instead of recommendations.

“I think at this time, given what is going on in Maine, that for moderate-risk sports, irregardless of where they take place, first of all, should not be engaging in practices and competition given the risk of COVID-19 spread in these sports,” she said.

While the news wasn’t great for youth sports, it was particularly good for school-based sports.

The high school winter sports season will open on Dec. 14 with team practices, while games will not begin until January. The timeline for the 2020-21 winter season was announced in a joint statement from state officials and the Maine Principals’ Association on Friday afternoon.

Mike Burnham, the association’s executive director, emphasized that the timeline could still change, given the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. On Friday, Maine had 184 new cases, setting a record for most new cases in a day for the fourth consecutive day.

“We’re all very concerned with the trending of cases here in Maine and we know this is a tentative plan as we move forward,” Burnham said. “We will continue to develop individual sports guidelines for each sport to follow and we’ll have them in place at the start of the season.”

According to the joint statement, coaches can begin contacting players virtually for individual workouts at home beginning Dec. 7. Team practices, which can include intrasquad scrimmages, can begin Dec. 14, with games scheduled to begin on Jan. 11. Those games should be with teams in the same geographic area. Burnham said there has been no talk of playoffs and that each winter sports committee is determining how many games will be played.

All participants will be required to wear masks while competing. This includes any activities that remain in the fall season, which ends on Nov. 14.

And that’s all right with athletes eager to play their sport this winter.

“Honestly, if it means we’re able to play, I don’t really care what is required,” said Camille Clement, a senior guard at Greely High in Cumberland. “I’m just just relieved we’ll have somewhat of a senior season.”

Jacob Humphrey, a senior at Bonny Eagle High in Standish, said, “Obviously it will be an obstacle to overcome – I don’t know if anyone has played basketball in a mask before – but as long as I’m able to play I’m fine with it.”

Lambrew said the decision to require that masks be worn by participants came after consulting with high school and state health officials in states that required masks to be worn during the fall. Maine did not require them because, Lambrew said, there had been studies showing that masks shouldn’t be worn during vigorous competition.

“We are adopting those requirements now,” she said, “especially given what is going on in the state now.”

Hall-Dale girls basketball coach Jarod Richmond said his players certainly won’t complain.

“My girls want to play. They’ll play on a parking lot or in a broom closet or in a cafeteria or wherever if we have to,” he said. “I think just the opportunity to get out there and spend some time together as a group and compete is a big deal.”

The Community Sports Guidelines, last updated on Oct. 22, once again categorized sports as low-, moderate- or high-risk and assigned levels of play to each based on the activity risk factor, safety protocols and the COVID-19 situation in Maine. The state also assigned starting dates to each activity, something it had not done in the past.

Wrestling, categorized as a high-risk sport under the Community Sports Guidelines, can only engage in “team-based practice with physically distanced group activities.”

Erick Jensen, the coach at 2019 Class A champion Mt. Ararat/Brunswick, was not surprised.

“It comes down to wrestling is a high-risk sport so at least right now, they’re not allowing contact and obviously that’s impossible (when) wrestling,” he said. “I know a lot of colleges have delayed until Jan. 1 and have been having no-contact practices so there might be things we can at least do to keep them active in hopes of having a season, but I tell you, it’s not looking good.”

The news that the winter high school season had a starting date was greeted with excitement in all corners of Maine. The fact that the decision was not dragged out was not lost on anyone.

Hall-Dale’s Richmond, an assistant coach on the Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale football team, said the mere fact that there is now a timeline is significant, unlike the fall, when the start of the season was delayed three times while the principals association and the state worked to establish COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“It was emotionally draining (in the fall),” he said. “To kind of have a little more of a road map and a little bit more of a guideline does take some stress off.”

Biddeford athletic director Dennis Walton said the work done in the fall, both before and after, certainly factors into it.

“I think that this is the byproduct of having a really successful fall,” he said. “Overall, York (County schools) had to wait, but when you talk to schools and the state, things have been done right and there’s a little more confidence on the part of the state that schools can do after-school activities while mitigating risk as much as possible. There is some trust being built and it’s great moving forward.

“Two months ago, the thought of indoor athletics this winter did not seem good.”

Walton noted that his teams started wearing masks Friday afternoon.

Winslow boys basketball coach Ken Lindlof said he expected if basketball was given the go-ahead, it would be with a later start date.

“I expected practices starting in January. The fact we can get in the gym a little earlier is encouraging,” Lindlof said.

Aligning the Community Sports Guidelines with school-based guidelines was an important factor, said Burnham, the MPA’s executive director.

“I think it makes the planning easier when we’re all working with the same guidelines and moving forward together,” he said. “This is not a reflection on those (club) programs and those opportunities they provide for the kids.”

Lambrew said the state will review the Community Sports guidelines around Jan. 1 to see if further updates are needed.

Delaying the start of practices until after Thanksgiving and the start of games until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays will allow state officials to see how Maine is dealing with COVID-19.

“It gives schools an opportunity to see how practices are going and it gives us chance to see the (COVID-19) spread in the state, if we’re able to curtail that,” Burnham said. “It will allow us to make the decision to move forward, with hopes that it comes back to low rates and we do something similar to what we did this fall.”

Drew Bonifant and Travis Lazarczyk of Central Maine Newspapers contributed to this report.

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