The Maine Principals’ Association is hoping to offer all high school sports this fall, but regular-season schedules and playoffs will be modified. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Maine Principals’ Association pushed back the start of the high school fall sports season on Tuesday, with hopes of playing all its sports in a shortened season during the pandemic.

“We hope to be able to offer a full fall season,” said MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham. “If the time comes and we’re not able to do that, we will address it then. We’re all working with the hope we can do that.”

It would be a modified season. Fall practices were set to begin Aug. 17, but now they will start on Tuesday, Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day. The preseason will last only two weeks, instead of three, and the first countable games will start no earlier than Friday, Sept. 18.

Burnham said the MPA plans to conduct playoffs, but those will be modified as well.

“I think it’s the right decision to start school first and then start sport,” said Gordie Salls, Sanford High’s athletic director and a member of the MPA Sports Medicine Committee. Starting academics, in person when possible “is the priority,” Salls said.

“It’s tough that (the season is) being pushed back,” added Messalonskee AD Chad Foye. “That’s not great. But the good news is we’re working toward having a season. I’d rather be a glass is half-full guy.”

Exactly how many schools will be able to participate in athletics remains to be seen. The Maine Department of Education recently released guidelines for a return to school that involved color-coding (yellow, green, red) for each county, with a red designation meaning there is a high risk of COVID-19 transmission and that schools should operate remotely. Burnham said last week that a red designation could mean no sports in any of those counties. The DOE plans on releasing its first color-coded map on July 31.

The color-coded designation will clarify the learning model for “a lot of school districts,” said Deering AD Michael Daly. “And then it’s up to the superintendents and the school boards at that point.”

The MPA’s fall sports committees will meet to determine the maximum number of countable games in the shortened season. The fall sports committees are also tasked to develop rules modifications for their individual sports in conjunction with National Federation of State High School Association safety recommendations. They will also determine postseason competition.

“Each individual (fall) sports committee is working with our Sports Medicine Committee to develop guidelines, or rules modifications, such as face masking,” said Burnham. “They’re looking at things we can do to safely to offer the sport as well as down the road as to what the playoffs will look like.”

The MPA canceled the spring sports season last April and is limiting interscholastic activities through the summer. It is encouraging schools to develop regional schedules wherever possible this fall.

For SMAA schools, located in York and Cumberland counties, there will be less need to dramatically alter schedules for regional purposes. Daly said the most pressing issue now revolves around determining which schools will offer sports.

“Who can play? Can we play? How do we play and who do we we play against? Then we can start making schedules,” Daly said.

Gray-New Gloucester AD Susan Robbins said geographic scheduling pods make sense because nearby schools are more apt to be the same when it comes to the green-yellow-red designations.

“I think that’s our best chance but again it’s hard to tell right now, without a clear picture of everybody’s back-to-school plan,” Robbins said.

Brant Remington, the athletic director at Maranacook Community High School in Readfield, said he favors a regional schedule, but acknowledged that creates challenges.

“If we do regional schedules, you will have some small schools that will have to play a lot of bigger schools,” Remington said. “That won’t be an issue in some sports, but it could be in others.”

“All of us are willing to be open minded and think outside of the box to make schedules work,” added Waterville athletic director Heidi Bernier. “Even if that’s a shortened fall season.”

Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens said it’s a smart move to delay the start of the fall season. He noted that Massachusetts on Tuesday also delayed the start of its fall season, to Sept. 14, and New York had previously delayed the start to Sept. 21, while also canceling fall championships.

“It is certainly consistent with what other states are doing in delaying the return to athletics,” said Stevens. “And the other thing it does is that it allows all schools in Maine to get back in the classroom, to whatever degree we’re going to be back in the classroom, before we have to concern ourselves with the return to athletics.

“It also gives us a little additional time to see how the virus charts its course nationwide and here in Maine, as well. I think we’ll know more by Labor Day than we do today. It will allow us to gather data and make good decisions as we move ahead.”

Burnham said that the delay does give the MPA more time to decide whether to proceed with a fall season but, more important, “it gives the schools time” to get their students back in the classroom safely.

“To get back to school (is) the number one priority,” said Gorham AD Tim Spear. “This gives us a date to start looking at schedules, to have a real good plan at each school on how you’re monitoring kids and how you’re going to do your screening. And it gives us time to educate our coaches.”

According to the MPA’s news release, schools in Aroostook County “may adjust the opening day based on the harvest break but should not begin pre-season workouts prior to August 17 … This move will allow districts to work on their Return to School Plan without the worry of starting fall sports.”

The MPA is also waiving its rule that requires a team to complete its season for the 2020-21 school year.  Under the rule, schools that do not compete their season become ineligible for varsity play for two seasons. The release also states that, “knowing that some schools may be affected by the Covid-19 virus, schools will be allowed to adjust their schedules during the season.”

Schools are currently restricted from having full team workouts under the MPA’s phased summer guidelines. The details for Phases III (which will run from Aug. 3-23) and Phase IV (from Aug. 24 to Sept. 7) are still being developed. Phase IV will focus on the conditioning of fall athletes.

Brunswick AD Jeff Ramich said the delay aids schools in Cumberland and York counties, which can’t begin the opening phase of individual conditioning workouts until Aug. 3. Schools in most other counties began those in early July.

“It helps Brunswick especially because we can’t start until Aug. 3 anyways so we had to wait while most schools north of Cumberland County started July 6,” Ramich said. “This will give us more time to be acclimated and ready to do the skills and drills.”

Staff writer Steve Craig, Central Maine Newspapers reporters Bill Stewart and Dave Dyer, and Times Record reporter Adam Robinson contributed to this report.


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