It loomed as the calendar’s biggest question mark. Every sport has faced questions about its viability during the coronavirus pandemic, but basketball in particular was under the microscope.

It is played indoors. It features unavoidable contact. It is arguably the state’s most popular sport, and Mainers have spent the past several months wondering its fate.

On the wave of that anticipation, the basketball season tipped off Monday, with the Mt. Ararat girls visiting Cony in one of the first contests of the new year. Other teams will take the court for the first time this week, and while opening night is always exciting, given the events that led up to this one, the feeling is a little extra this time.

“I’m extremely excited to get it going. I think these kids have been pretty resilient and waiting for this day,” said Maranacook girls coach Karen Magnusson, whose team is scheduled to play Tuesday at Erskine Academy in South China. “I’ve got a senior-heavy group, I’ve got six seniors. So this obviously means a lot to them.”

Coronavirus safety concerns resulted in summer leagues being shut down, and many student-athletes spent the fall wondering if their sport was going to happen this winter.

The Maine Principals’ Association announced last month it had delayed the start of team practices for moderate- and high-risk sports from Dec. 14 until Jan. 4. Schools within “green” counties, as designated by the Maine Department of Education, were allowed to play their first games Monday. High school athletics are on hold, however, in many parts of the state, including in four southern Maine counties of Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York.

Those four counties are still designated “yellow” by the state, meaning it is recommended extracurricular activities are paused because of an elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Maranacook senior center Gabby Green said the arrival of a new basketball season brings a sense of normalcy, even if it will look far different from previous seasons.

“We’ve been having some normal practices lately, being able to do contact finally, so having a game ahead, it seems more like we’re getting back to seminormal, a bit,” she said. “It’s been 11 months since we’ve played a game, so we’re ecstatic.”

There is, though, a feeling of apprehension as well as a season with so much uncertainty gets going.

“There are a lot of question marks that we’ve all been wondering,” Green said. “We all sat down and talked about our worries this season, and a lot of people are like, ‘I’m nervous that this might be our last game, or this might be our last practice, and we won’t even know it.'”

Erskine boys basketball coach Tim Bonsant said he has those same concerns.

“I’m excited we’re going to have a season. The kids deserve it,” he said. “(But) I have some questions, some trepidation. My trepidation is (over an abrupt end to the season). Hopefully, we’re going to start, hopefully we’re going to finish.”

Cony’s Raegan Bechard works around Mt. Ararat High School’s Eliza Libby, left, and Elsa Daulerio during a game Monday in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

One of the biggest unknowns going into this season is the masks players and coaches have to wear throughout the duration of the game. Unlike in the fall, when athletes could take their masks off when entering the game, players will have to wear them during play this winter. When that stipulation was announced in November, and even when drills started in December, players were unsure how it would work.

“It’s taken a lot to get used to the masks,” Green said. “The first few practices, we were like: ‘How in the world are we going to do this? We’re going to need breaks every three minutes,’ which we did at first. But now, we forget we’re wearing them.”

Still, how the masks will affect games, when players push themselves harder, is uncertain.

“I’ve got a feeling a lot more kids will be subbed out quicker than normal,” Bonsant said. “I don’t know how it’s going to restrict the breathing. How am I going to coach with a mask on? Will kids be able to hear me?”

Masks are not the only change. Games will begin with a coin flip, not a jump ball, and there will be five full, minute-long timeouts. Normally, there are three.

And there is also the rustiness factor, the result of a canceled offseason and drastically diminished preseason. Coaches, however, know what to expect.

Players’ chairs are sanitized before a basketball game between Cony and Mt. Ararat on Monday at Cony High School in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“I’m not expecting perfection on opening night, that’s for sure,” Bonsant said.

“You won’t be seeing the form you would be seeing in a typical January,” Maranacook boys basketball coach Travis Magnusson said. “Mid-January, you have teams that are playing at their peak. And we’re just starting.”

Given the path to this point, however, just starting is a victory.

“Anything can change,” Magnusson said. “We’re happy that we’ll hopefully still be able to get a game in Tuesday.”

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