While many of his peers are resting up from the end of the winter sports season and gearing up for spring this weekend, Maranacook senior Luke Bartol will be in Fort Kent, skiing in the Eastern High School Nordic Championships.

For Bartol and other skiers, it is a rare opportunity to ski against elite competition from around the Northeast. Too rare, as Bartol, some high school coaches and even some legislators see it.

Maine Principals’ Association rules place restrictions on student-athletes – particularly in individual events such as skiing and running – who want to compete in events outside of the high school schedule. Even when they do get a waiver to compete at those events, such as regional and national competitions, their high school coaches are not allowed to coach them.

Legislators have introduced a bill that would prevent the MPA from prohibiting high school athletes from participating in out-of-schedule events and their coaches from continuing to coach them during those activities.

Bartol, who won the Class B state freestyle championship last month, has clearance to ski at this weekend’s event. But he said the difficulty he and other skiers face when trying to ski more frequently against elite competition under current MPA rules hinders their development and college prospects.

Skiers hoping to gain points and exposure on the Eastern Cup circuit – held during the Maine high school season – are at a disadvantage competitively and at getting the attention of college coaches. The MPA allows athletes one waiver per season, which the bill’s supporters say isn’t sufficient, especially if the skiers are hoping to qualify for prestigious J2 competition.

“There are only four Eastern Cup weekends during the entire year, so I have tried to go to some of those. You need to attend a majority of those to be able to qualify for anything,” Bartol said. “With the MPA rules, you get one waiver, which if you need to qualify for something like junior nationals, that’s just not enough.”

BILL INTRODUCED

State Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has introduced a bill (LD-395) to prevent the MPA or schools from keeping students from participating in outside-of-school enrichment activities of any kind, and allow coaches, teachers or other adults to help them at such events. The bill is currently before the legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

Berry became aware of the rule when his son, Lisandro Berry-Gaviria, a Class A state champion cross country runner for Mt. Ararat, tried to compete in the Nike Cross Nationals in December and was told about the waiver process and coach’s rule.

Berry said the rule wasn’t much more than an inconvenience for his son, who finished 46th at the race even though his coach didn’t accompany him to Oregon. But it has forced other Maine high school athletes to make tough choices.

“It’s not unique to any one sport, but for me, it really comes down to the principle of the thing,” said Berry, who worries precedent could creep into other areas students compete in, such as debate or robotics.

“The notion that a school or association of schools would prevent them from participating or prevent an adult from helping, it just makes no sense,” he said.

MPA Executive Director Dick Durost said the rule was adopted “decades ago” to prevent students from facing year-round demands from a sport and coaches from choosing to coach or being pressured into coaching that sport year-round.

“We already have in place a waiver process for a school to request an extension in an unusual circumstance,” Durost said. “What we’re talking about, and I think we’re going to end up pretty much on the same page, is that if a kid gets invited to an elite event right after the sports season is over, that the school could request a waiver from our staff for, let’s say, a cross country coach, to go with the kid to a national event.”

But a single waiver or even multiple waivers aren’t sufficient for athletes or their coaches, the bill’s supporters said.

Jay Nutting, a lobbyist and Bartol’s cross country running coach at Maranacook, said he’s heard of skiers who have competed at Eastern Cup races – at the risk of being reported to the MPA – so that they can gain exposure with college coaches.

“Any kid who’s gone on to get a scholarship or ski in college has competed in those races,” said Nutting, a Leavitt Area High School graduate who went on to run cross country in college.

“We’re really putting them at a disadvantage in not letting them go and compete freely in them.”

Bartol said he has talked with several college coaches who have emphasized that getting points in Eastern Cup races is more attractive to them than any high school state championships.

“They really want to see how I compare to the rest of the field in those points races,” Bartol said. “I’ve had friends who haven’t been able to ski in college because they don’t have the points to prove it.”

State Rep. Louis Luchini (D-Ellsworth), the bill’s co-sponsor, called the MPA rule outdated, saying it uses “kind of a one-size-fits-all model that doesn’t apply to every sport.”

“I think things like running and skiing, in particular, are sports where individuals can go on to compete at really high levels, and it’s important that they have access to it,” Luchini said.

Nutting said the bill does not require schools to financially support sending an athlete and/or coach to the events.

“This isn’t about putting more of a strain on budgets or anything,” Nutting said. “If there is an opportunity for a kid to race and have their coach with them, they’re going to find a way (to pay for it without school help).”

COACHES NEEDED

One of the state’s most storied runners, Luchini won state and New England titles in cross country and finished second at nationals as an Ellsworth student and went on to earn All-America honors in cross country and track at Stanford.

Now the cross country coach at Ellsworth High, Luchini said Maine athletes who get the opportunity to compete in the more high-profile events are still at a disadvantage if they want their high school coach there with them or can’t afford to hire a private coach.

Luchini’s cross country coach when he ran for Ellsworth, Andy Beardsley, accompanied him to nationals his junior year and was suspended by the MPA for half of Luchini’s senior cross country season in 1998 after another coach reported him.

Luchini went to nationals again his senior year and finished second, but without Beardsley.

“I think I was the only kid in the country who didn’t have a coach there,” Luchini said, “which I think is a huge disadvantage for the kid and, frankly, is kind of embarrassing, that the state of Maine is the only state that doesn’t let their coach accompany a kid at the highest level of competition.”

Durost downplayed the importance of high school coaches accompanying athletes to competitions that occur outside of the MPA season but said the organization is open to “fine-tuning” its rules.

“I think it depends on your perspective,” Durost said. “I think if you’re a cross country runner and you’ve been trained, you know what your style, what your approach is.

” I can understand the parent and the student-athlete wanting the coach there, I’m not so sure if it’s a great disadvantage if they aren’t.”

The committee held public hearings on the bill last month and later tabled it to allow legislators to negotiate with Durost, who said the MPA would prefer to resolve the issue outside of a new statute.

Berry has met with Durost and is open to more discussion, but added that he is optimistic the bill would pass if brought before the legislature.

“I think we’ll either find common ground or go forward with the bill,” he said.

Berry said he’s concerned “anything less than a legislative fix still leaves the door open to this problem cropping up again.”