Players run through a drill during a University of Maine football practice last year. It’s unclear what sports might look like this fall at UMaine and other colleges in the state – if there are any games at all – leaving athletic directors to plan for a myriad of possibilities. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As college athletes across the nation begin to report back to some of the nation’s largest conferences for voluntary workouts, colleges in Maine are still trying to determine what the fall season will look like – or if there will be one at all.

And with the coronavirus pandemic still strong, athletic directors are preparing for any possibility.

“It’s just a different time,” said Ken Ralph, the AD at the University of Maine, the state’s only NCAA Division I program. “We’re going to have to adjust, we’re going to have to be nimble. But the biggest thing is we need to ask people is to be patient, that it’s going to be a very different year and things are not going to be normal.”

There’s much for athletic directors to consider – and it’s not just wondering when athletes can return to campus, whether fans will be able to attend games, whether out-of-state travel will be restricted, or what schedules will look like.

There’s also the nitty-gritty of keeping athletes, coaches and staff safe. Questions such as: How will screening and testing for COVID-19 be done? Will visiting teams be allowed to use locker rooms and training facilities? Will masks be worn on the sidelines? How many people can safely fit on a bus for road games, with social distancing, and will they need to wear masks? Who will do the laundry, and where will students take showers (in their locker room, or in their dorms)? What will team meals will look like (sit-down, or grab-and-go?)? What happens if someone tests positive for the virus or is uncomfortable returning to the field?

“There’s a lot to talk about,” said Al Bean, the athletic director at the University of Southern Maine.

The college sports world came to a stunning halt on March 11 when the NCAA canceled its winter and spring sports championship tournaments in response to the growing virus outbreak. Colleges sent students home to finish their studies with online classes, and campus facilities were closed.

But with the traditional start of fall practices about seven weeks away, athletic directors are having daily discussions – within their own campuses, with schools across the state and with the various leagues they play in – to determine just what has to happen for sports to be played in the fall.

“We are preparing Plans A, B, C and D, knowing A, where things are normal, is probably not on the table,” said Julie Davis, the athletic director at UMaine-Farmington. “B is trying to be on campus and determine what types of guidelines we have follow to make it safe and still provide a great opportunity for everybody.”

“I do believe, at the end of the day, it’s about having many contingency plans in place and just trying to be prepared for anything,” said Thomas College Athletic Director Chris Parsons. “I foresee there will be changes and late changes, just based on what’s happening with COVID-19. We have to be ready to shift gears and take a different approach. We’re planning for many things. We just don’t know which one of those plans is going to be taking place in the fall.”

“You try to account for every possible scenario,” said Bates Athletic Director Jason Fein. “What I said to my fellow athletic directors is that I feel about 80 to 85 percent of the work we’re doing (right now) is going to be thrown away. We’re going to narrow in a direction, but we’re planning 10 different directions.”

“We’ve been working on this for months” said University of New England Athletic Director Heather Davis. “These conversations on our campus started pretty much right away, after we made the decision to move to remote (learning) in March. Once we got through that hurdle, then immediately it was looking forward.”

There are 11 NCAA Division III schools in Maine. They have begun discussions on playing against each other should out-of-state travel be restricted.

“The good news is all the Maine D-III schools have such a great relationship anyway,” said Will Sanborn, the associate athletic director at St. Joseph’s College. “We all depend on each other to form the majority of our nonconference games. If we have to play the Maine schools more, then I think it’s going to be an easy transition if that has to be the way to go.”

SCHEDULING COMPLICATIONS

Athletic directors see late June and early July as a key time frame in their decision-making. By then, they hope, school officials will have determined when, or even if, students can return to campus for classes. ADs expect students to be on campus, but even that is not certain at most schools.

And if students aren’t on campus, can there be sports? “It seems unlikely to me,” said USM’s Bean.

School officials at Bowdoin and Colby declined to be interviewed for this story, preferring to wait until things become clearer. Even those who did talk about the upcoming fall season obviously could not provide clear-cut answers.

“The hard thing is that everyone wants an answer,” said UMaine’s Ralph. “But there are no clear answers … The worst thing you can do is string people along. Sometimes the best thing you can do is say, ‘We don’t know yet.’ You see too many people trying to provide answers and then having to backtrack on it.”

Nobody wants to make decisions too soon. “From my viewpoint, the later we know, the better off we are,” said Sanborn. “These decisions that are made early are often no-go decisions.”

Already, U Sports, the governing body of collegiate sports in Canada, has shut down the fall season, canceling championships for its six fall sports and eliminating any competition until January. That forced the cancellation of UMaine’s hockey exhibition game against Prince Edward Island, according to Ralph.

While no such announcements have come from the NCAA or any of the leagues that include Maine colleges, athletic directors expect changes to occur in their fall sports.

“We”re trying to stay ahead and make contingency measures,” said UNE’s Davis.

Complicating the issue is that the leagues that Maine colleges play in are spread across the Eastern seaboard, and each state may have different safety guidelines.

UMaine plays in the Colonial Athletic Association’s football conference, which has teams in nine states, going as far south as North Carolina, and in Hockey East, which has teams in every New England state. Its other teams play in America East, which has schools in seven states, including Maryland and New York.

USM is in the Little East Conference and St. Joseph’s is in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference. Both conferences have schools in every New England state.

The New England Small College Athletic Conference, with Bowdoin, Bates and Colby as members, also has schools in Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and New York. The North Atlantic Conference includes five Maine schools, plus others in Vermont and New York.

Those conferences are all having discussions on what their schedules will look like. Schedules could be reduced or regionalized. Schools will certainly look to eliminate overnight trips where possible, something UMaine can’t do given its location as the northern outpost in all three leagues.

That’s why Maine’s D-III colleges have begun talking about playing an in-state schedule, or at least a regional schedule. Teams could travel by bus and be back on campus by nightfall.

“We’d be very open to that,” said Husson Athletic Director Frank Pergolizzi.

So would others. “Any opportunity to have student-athletes be able to play and have some kind of season and compete, we want to provide that,” said Parsons of Thomas College. “You can put together a pretty good schedule for the fall for many of our programs. If that’s the safest way to provide an experience, we’ll do that.”

SAFETY GUIDELINES

Paramount in any decision-making about fall sports is the safety of everyone involved.

“We take what we do so seriously, we’re so passionate about it,” said UMaine’s Ralph. “But we can’t sacrifice anyone’s safety just to play.”

Added Husson’s Pergolizzi, “I think we all have to be just a little bit smarter and a little bit more careful than otherwise we would be.”

School officials said they would follow state safety protocols first, then protocols from their medical staff on campus, as well as league and NCAA guidelines. State safety guidelines are important, they said. If Maine’s 14-day quarantine requirement for nonresidents remains in place, how can a team from a state other than New Hampshire or Vermont – both exempt from Maine’s quarantine rules – come here to play? Or how could a team from Maine travel to Massachusetts or Connecticut for a game, and then return home?

“There are still a whole host of things to discuss with regards to having competition,” said USM’s Bean.

For instance, he asked, what happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19? Ralph said you have to be prepared for that.

“We all know there are going to be positive tests, that people are going to be carrying the virus,” he said. “How do we prevent them from infecting others?”

Last week, the University of Texas announced that two of its football players had tested positive for COVID-19 during on-campus screening and that another had tested positive for antibodies.

“One of the things we need to talk about,” said Ralph, “is that if a team visits us, or we visit them, what kind of protocols are in place to ensure everyone’s safety.”

And the protocols, officials stress, have to be consistent. The way one school sanitizes the locker room or training room has to be the same at another school. The way tests are administered has to be the same.

“And we need to make sure people are comfortable participating,” said Ralph. “There are going to be people not comfortable with being back, and we have to realize that.

“The biggest thing we can do is that we need to make sure we don’t penalize the students. If we have a football player who said he is not comfortable being back in this environment, we would never pull his scholarship. Everyone has a different perspective and we have to respect that.”

As the days get warmer, these weekly discussions are taking on greater importance.

“We’re keeping an eye on this and people keep telling us we have a lot of time,” said Ralph. “But the reality is the start of the season is getting larger in the mirror.”

– Kennebec Journal reporter Drew Bonifant contributed to this report.


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