Erskine defenders Sarah Praul, left, and Mackenzie Roderick (12) converge on Winslow’s Bohdi Littlefield during a Jan. 19 game in South China. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The stands were packed and the fans were at full volume when the Winslow girls basketball team visited Waterville for a rivalry game last year. There were screams with each basket and turnover, and loud boos for each foul called.

The noise came from everywhere. And it lasted from start to finish.

“Our Waterville games, they get absolutely crazy,” Winslow coach Brenda Beckwith said. “Just the excitement the sound brings, you get amped up. … You really just get into it. You feed off of all of that.”

This season, however, the bleachers are empty. Where there has always been the roar of the fans, there’s silence. This is pandemic basketball; a sport being played without the crowd element to which it is normally attached.

Sports without fans aren’t a new thing in this 2020-2021 school year. But in basketball, their absence resonates a little bit more.

“There’s nothing like it,” Waterville coach Rob Rodrigue said. “I coached football for 17 years as well, and it’s not the same. In basketball, they’re right on top of you. It’s such a great community event. Everything’s right there. You get worked up a little bit, it’s pretty intense.”

Without that, coaches said, games will feel strange.

“It was weird being up at Mt. Abram, that’s such a big gym and a big space, to have nobody in it,” Hall-Dale coach Jarod Richmond said.

“It’ll definitely be different,” added Messalonskee coach Keith Derosby, whose team plays its first game on Thursday. “We’re challenging our girls to take care of that energy for us. … It’s really going to be up to the kids on the bench and the assistants. You can’t supplement the energy for a whole, full gymnasium. But that’s kind of what we’re going to try to do.”

It’s been just as jarring for the players as the coaches.

The crowd really does help,” Winslow senior guard Bodhi Littlefield said. “And when you see your parents up there, it’s like ‘OK, I’m not only playing for my team and my community, but I’m playing for my parents who are watching me.’ Thinking that my parents are at home watching, it’s just kind of a bummer.”

Hall-Dale’s Lilly Platt, left, and Hayden Madore push past Gardiner’s Kassidy Collins during a Jan. 18 game in Farmingdale. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Without fans, games have the look and sound of a scrimmage or a summer game, and players and coaches alike have to work harder to bring the same intensity they would in normal years.

“I have caught myself saying ‘We’re going to do this and this and this, and it really doesn’t matter. We’ll just see how it works out,’ ” Beckwith said. “And I’m just thinking, ‘I would never have said that last year.’ ”

“I worry about them not going to get up,” Rodrigue said. “I think they will, but it’s not the same. It’s going to be different.”

For some players, the fans will be missed most in those final moments of a close game, where pressure rises, the noise builds and the players raise their games to meet the stakes.

“Where else do you ever get to have that in your life?” Beckwith said. “You’re not sitting there where people are focused on you as the ballplayer or the person who makes the shot. … These high school kids are no different than anybody else. They really feed off that.”

For others, however, it might be easier to concentrate and think through big possessions without a crowd reminding them how much is on the line.

Waterville’s Lindsay Given drives against MCI defender Natalie Sites during a Jan. 19 game in Pittsfield. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“I think it’s kind of a catch-22,” Richmond said. “There’s a lot to be said about that positive energy you get from the crowd and how people get excited, and you can really feed off of that, but then you kind of eliminate the other part of the equation, where you might have the unfriendly fans out there trying to get in your head.”

Coaches will have an easier time guiding their players on the floor, which Erskine Academy’s Bob Witts said is a plus.

Sometimes the gym’s so loud, you’re yelling out ‘Hey, cover 33!’ They don’t hear you,” he said. “I want to talk to them as much as I can. You’ll see me call my point guard over and just say ‘Hey, what are you thinking? What do you think we should run?’ 

“So I like it from a coaching standpoint, because I can really talk to them. Next year, you won’t have that.”

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