Lindsay Plourde of Wells sets the ball during an outdoor volleyball match against Marshwood at Wells High last week. Volleyball is typically the only sport played indoors during the fall high school season, but that was prohibited this year because of the pandemic. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Like the fall sports season itself, much about the match was unusual.

Class A Marshwood and Class B Wells were playing volleyball. They were outside, on Wells’ baseball field, while wearing face coverings to minimize the risk of transmission of the coronavirus, and without game officials.

Even the weather was mixed up: an almost muggy 70-degree Veterans’ Day in Maine.

“This season was so weird,” said Wells senior Jaiden Greaves. “It had its challenges. We had a practice that was 70 degrees out and a practice that was 35 degrees out. I’m just thankful we got to play.”

That’s life in a pandemic. Few things feel normal. To be able to do things you enjoy, like playing for your high school team, accepting and adapting to abnormality is necessary.

“That’s the big message, that we’re always adapting, in-game and outside of the game, through COVID and in our play,” said Marshwood volleyball coach Justine Fitzsimons.

Maine made it through its abbreviated and altered outdoor fall sports season without any reported cases of COVID-19 being spread because of high school sports. On Nov. 6, the MPA, in conjunction with all the key state agencies, announced plans to allow indoor sports this winter, with team practices beginning Dec. 14 and competition targeted to start Jan. 11.

Athletes are hopeful that the fall season demonstrated two key things: sports can be conducted in a safe way, and athletic activities have real value in terms of students’ mental, physical and emotional well-being.

“I think almost every school had the same set of standards that they followed to allow them to play, which I think was really key to the success of everyone getting a shot,” said Jacob Humphrey, a senior at Bonny Eagle and one of the top returning basketball players in southern Maine.

Emily Archibald, a senior at Kennebunk, agreed. Archibald, who signed a national letter of intent to play basketball at Providence College on Wednesday, was on Kennebunk’s soccer team this fall.

“I think they did a really good job, putting in precautions and following the guidelines and everything, so I’m definitely hopeful for a winter season,” she said.

Maine’s rapid surge in COVID-19 cases, test positivity rate, and even hospitalizations and deaths over the past two weeks do not bode well for any sector of the population. Eight of Maine’s 16 counties had to shut down high school extracurricular activities at some point during the fall because those counties were deemed “yellow” by the state, meaning conditions existed for an increased risk of transmission of the virus. York County schools lost a whole month of practice and game time at the beginning of the season. Oxford and Waldo counties had stints of forced inactivity. When the fall sports season officially ended on Saturday, Androscoggin, Franklin, Knox, Somerset and Washington counties were in the yellow zone.

If the surge continues into mid-December, playing sports indoors might become a moot point.

But it is worth considering the positive lessons learned during the fall season and how they can be applied to winter sports.

For starters, the fall confirmed that for many if not most high school athletes, the most important part of playing a sport is being with teammates.

“I loved it,” said Marshwood senior volleyball player Raya Anderson. “The fact that we got to get together this year was so great. It wasn’t as competitive but it was so much fun.”

Like all involved in Maine high school sports this fall, volleyball teams learned to adapt – by taking their sport outdoors. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

As the Veterans’ Day volleyball match at Wells demonstrated, athletes are also willing to accept change.

“We’ve never had to deal with elements outside. So it’s all these new things that we’ve had to deal with, like wet feet, and slipping,” said Wells Coach Rachel Graceffa. “But they appreciated every single day that they came out. It was nice to see.”

“The kids, they’ve handled things at a remarkable rate,” said Wells Athletic Director Pierce Cole. “The kids have been outstanding and so excited to participate. They rolled with the punches and did a great job.”

Cole said what the fall taught him, and others, was the understanding that “we need extreme flexibility.”

Graceffa, a high school science teacher who was formerly Wells’ certified athletic trainer, said the fall also has taught students and coaches how to apply protocols for social distancing and hygiene used during the school day into the athletic sphere.

“We clean everything. We clean our hands after every break. We try to take breaks separate from one another. Those are things we’re going to have to do when we move inside,” Graceffa said.

This winter, players will have to adapt to wearing a face covering at all times, even during competition. That’s something Berwick Academy’s athletes did this fall, with the exception of cross country runners. Berwick Academy is a private K-12 day school in South Berwick. Because of the pandemic, Berwick requested to participate in MPA sports this fall and plans to do so in basketball and swimming this winter. Like the other York County schools, Berwick suspended activities until the county was designated as “green.”

“The lessons we learned were patience, and the other thing is being grateful for having a certain number of practices and games,” said Rob Quinn, Berwick’s athletic director. “Now it’s applying it to the winter, and I’m having the same conversations with the coaches. We need to be the light for these kids. We can’t be a negative force at all.”

Quinn said there are also specific actions to increase safety. Visiting teams need to arrive ready to play, eliminating locker room use. His school has added portable bathrooms for visitors to use. He agrees with eliminating fans and maximizing livestreaming opportunities. And, travel will be limited, which does pose issues for Berwick’s hockey teams, which typically play numerous games against prep schools in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and throughout Massachusetts.

Just a few days ago, the governors of all the New England states and New Jersey made a joint statement to forbid interstate travel for hockey for public and private schools and youth organizations. Quinn said he’s hopeful a hockey schedule involving only Maine’s private schools can be worked out.

Even in a best-case scenario where a winter season goes off with relatively few interruptions to the schedule, it is highly unlikely there will be state championships. Teams would not be able to compete outside of their geographic areas as the current guidelines are written. Further, the no-fans edict, combined with Maine’s strict gathering limits for indoor spaces, makes renting large, neutral site venues normally used for basketball and hockey economically unfeasible.

The only fall sport to hold a state championship was golf.

“I think the biggest thing is getting the kids playing,” said Rob Sullivan, Kennebunk’s girls’ basketball coach. “Maybe if the numbers change, if the other side of February, things get better, then I’m open to anything. But if they tell you right now, we’re going to give you 10, 12 games and no playoffs, fine. I’ll take it.”

Greaves, the Wells High senior, would agree. Hoisting a championship trophy is not the reason for having high school athletics, especially this year.

“My dad has always taught me that the purpose of school sports is to teach kids to work together and to teach work ethic,” she said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.