Skowhegan girls basketball coach Mike LeBlanc has an undefeated team, one of the state’s best players in Jaycie Christopher, an improved supporting cast and a real chance at a Class A championship.

But with COVID-19 still lurking, he knows just how easily it could all crash to a halt.

“I’ve been worried about it, thinking it’s going to come during playoff week,” he said. “It’s on our minds, because you never know when it’s going to hit.”

As the state basketball tournaments arrive, the presence of COVID-19 remains in the thoughts of those in the game. The risk of of players or coaches testing positive for COVID-19 has been a threat all season, but the room for flexibility is gone now. An outbreak of cases on a team in the regular season meant losing some games. An outbreak now could mean an early end to a team’s season, and could potentially knock a top team or top player out of the competition.

“It’s definitely on everybody’s mind,” said Winthrop boys basketball coach Todd MacArthur, whose 14-4 Ramblers holds the No. 1 seed in Class C South. “The only thing about going to the tournament now, there’s no rescheduling tournament games. So there’s definitely a potential for danger.”

“That was the concern that I’m sure so many teams had, they’re going to get to the playoffs and somebody’s going to get a quarterfinal bye because the No. 3 seed couldn’t play,” added Gardiner girls coach Mike Gray, whose team is the second seed in Class A North. “That’s not what anyone would want to have to deal with after fighting through this whole season and everything that we’ve done.”


Not all teams are in the same situation, however.

Some, like MacArthur’s Ramblers, were hit hard by the virus when the omicron variant was quickly spreading in late December and early January, and have already dealt with a shutdown. Others, like LeBlanc’s River Hawks, have been able to dodge COVID-19 to this point.

Winthrop High School head coach Todd MacArthur, center, reacts after a call in the first quarter of the Class C state championship game Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

LeBlanc said he’s talked with his team about trying to stay safe in the days before the tournament begins.

“We occasionally talk to them about ‘look, if you’re having family over, wear your mask. Or if you’re going somewhere and you don’t feel comfortable, don’t go or wear your mask,'” he said. “Nobody’s going to look at you weird if you’re wearing a mask. Just try to take care of yourself and keep yourself out of harm’s way.”

The undefeated Forest Hills boys, the top seed in Class D South, have also sidestepped COVID enough to play all 18 games — although it hasn’t been easy.

“When the phone rings, you just never know what’s going to come next,” said coach Anthony Amero, who’s also the school’s athletic director. “We’ve just told the kids from Day 1, ‘Look, during the regular season, there’s going to be a lot of adversity with your scheduling. You may have to play two, three, four nights in a row. So you need to remember that everybody on this team is extremely important.”


Amero noted that Forest Hills is a mask-optional school. He said some of his players have taken the extra precaution of wearing masks before the tournament.

“A lot of the kids just want to go hibernate to the end of the week,” Amero said. “But all kidding aside, we’ve got a couple of kids who started wearing their mask. We’re a non-masking school. A couple of players started wearing a mask on kind of a regular basis because they don’t want to take any chances before the playoffs.

“I’ll tell you, kids are nervous about it, very much so. And I am as a coach, because you’ve worked so hard.”

Skowhegan girls basketball coach Mike LeBlanc talks to his players during a timeout inof a Feb. 8 game against Cony in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The Rangeley girls (10-3) — the No. 2 seed in D South — struggled with numbers this season and almost didn’t field a team before they ultimately got to seven players. When the school went to remote learning in December because of COVID-19 safety concerns, the Lakers had to pause their season. By the beginning of February, they had played just five games.

“We obviously faced a lot of adversity, going through everything that we couldn’t even control,” Rangeley head coach Brittany Russell said. “That’s what I kept saying (to the team), ‘You can’t even control what’s happening to us right now.’ I’m so proud of them for one, sticking through, know there were only seven players. Luckily, we had one person move from Vinalhaven to Rangeley two weeks before the season, which was a total surprise. And then we brought up the one eighth-grader who was going to play middle school. We brought her up so we can have seven players. Without those two things happening, we wouldn’t have been able to have a season, which is crazy for the Rangeley community to hear.”

Russell added that the Lakers won’t take any extra precautions, noting the school requires students to be masked at all times.


“We’re kind of just rolling with it,” Russell said. “COVID has been passed around our school several times since basketball started. I’d have to say our percentage of girls who are in the clear, I guess you can say, is good, since everyone is healthy. We’ve just got to stay in our bubble as much as we can and just go with what we have. But obviously with seven girls, we can’t take any chances.”

The Nokomis boys (17-1) are the No. 1 seed in Class A North, and are led by the region’s top player in freshman center Cooper Flagg. Asked about his concern regarding Flagg or his teammates potentially testing positive and derailing a special season, though, coach Earl Anderson said he feels at ease.

“We were all vaccinated before the season, so it’s not anything we’re thinking about or worrying about,” he said. “They’ve changed the contact tracing, so it’s not a concern. … As more and more people are getting vaccinated and the (case) numbers are trending in the right direction, I think people are becoming more secure and more confident.”

Anderson pointed out that illness at tournament time is nothing new, as flu season often lingers into the playoffs.

Forest Hills’ Mason Desjardins (11) drives to the hoop and dishes the ball to teammate Hiram Logsdon (54) as Rangeley’s Chase Carmichael (33) defends during a boys basketball game Dec. 29 in at the Augusta Civic Center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“You always ran that risk,” he said. “Every season, every team had a cold or flu bug go through their team. We just hoped that it didn’t happen at the worst possible time.”

The Winslow boys (12-5), seeded seventh in B North, were fortunate to get 17 games in as they, too, had to pause their season because of COVID-19 safety protocols.


“It seems like every week there was some unknown that popped up, maybe a kid had COVID, there was a weather event,” Winslow head coach Ken Lindlof said. “We went 12 days and played one game (during that stretch). We went seven days and played four games. Neither one of those is good. But that’s just the way this season’s been and it’s been that way for everybody.”

Lindlof said the Black Raiders won’t take any extra precautions heading into the tournament.

The coaches who’ve already experienced COVID-19 outbreaks in their programs say their teams are possibly in a better position now.

“The initial thought (during Winthrop’s shutdown) was ‘This sucks.’ Then, once I knew everybody was OK and everybody dealt with it pretty well, that was one of the conversations we had when we got back in the gym. ‘Hey, we all got it, so it’s a better situation than some teams have it,'” MacArthur said. “You hope and pray, if those situations do present themselves, it’s not a disaster for the game.”

Gardiner girls basketball coach Mike Gray reacts after Lawrence scored a basket during a Feb. 8 Class A North game night in Gardiner. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Gardiner coach Gray agreed; the Tigers paused their season for a week in January because of COVID-19 concerns.

“At the time, it was difficult to be shut down for a week and be worrying about everybody that got sick,” he said. “But now that we’re past that, we’ve got everybody back, the girls were largely of the opinion ‘Hey, we got that out of the way, we don’t have to stress about that.'”


The Waterville girls, the fifth seed in the Class B North tournament, endured its own COVID issues. Heading into late January, the Purple Panthers had played just seven games.

To make up for it, Waterville played 10 games in a 17-day stretch. It went 7-3 in that stretch.

Coach Joy Charles said the team won’t go beyond the norm in regards to precautions before the tournament.

“We’re just kind of staying the course with what we’ve been doing,” Charles said. “All of the girls have had COVID. We were kind of the ones who spearheaded the whole train and then it just kind of just fell apart for everybody after that. Since then, everybody has been healthy.

“I just think it’s important that they’re student-athletes and are working hard every day, I think that helps with their health, mental and physical health. But no extra precautions, I don’t really have any extra concern in that aspect.”

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