The Dr. Paul S. Hill Jr. Stadium sits dormant on the campus of Thornton Academy in Saco in late July. TA, along with other area high schools, anticipates that fall sports will begin on Sept. 8 across the state. Josh Pulsifer photo

SACO — One major question mark for athletics to resume at the high school level in Maine was answered this past week. The Maine Principals’ Association sent a memo to schools on July 21, alerting districts that the start of the fall sports season would be delayed until Sept. 8 — roughly three weeks later than the original starting date of Aug. 17. While some may have seen the delay as a negative development, local athletic directors from Thornton Academy, Biddeford, and Old Orchard Beach all saw the news as an encouraging signal that the fall sports season might occur, albeit in a different fashion than any season before.

“I was very supportive of the MPA’s decision to adjust the fall start date,” said Gary Stevens, the athletic director at Thornton Academy in Saco. “It allows us to have a little more time to get a sense of the status of COVID-19 cases within the state of Maine, regionally, and nationally,” said Stevens.

“I thought this was very positive news,” said Dennis Walton, the athletic director and assistant principal at Biddeford High School. “If we do return (to fall sports), this is a good direction to go in. This gives schools more time to prepare, and I think that is a huge aspect of this move. I think it’s wise to wait until school actually opens to start athletic activities,” said Walton.

“My initial reaction was ecstatic; it was the first concrete indication that we have a strong possibility of some semblance of fall sports,” said Dean Plante, the athletic director and varsity football coach at Old Orchard Beach High School. “I know my coaches and myself have been itching to get back in-person with kids,” said Plante.

While the official start of the fall sports season has been pushed back, athletes across York County may be granted permission to train together earlier than Sept., 8 by area superintendents. Under the MPA’s Interscholastic Management Committee memo to schools, dated July 21, Phase III of the MPA Summer Guidelines for all sports will now be in effect from Aug. 3 to Aug. 23, with details currently being developed for what activities can occur during Phase III. Phase IV of the MPA Summer Guidelines, for fall teams only, will run from Aug. 24 to Sept. 7. Details are also currently being developed and will be focused on conditioning of fall athletes, stated the memo.

If the fall season is allowed to progress under the current timeline established by the MPA, schools and leagues will need to work together to adjust schedules for, most likely, all fall sports. The first countable contests for fall sports cannot occur before Sept. 18, according to the MPA. The MPA memo from July 21 stated that each fall sport committee will be determining post-season play for that activity. A reduced regular season schedule is possible, and regionalized scheduling to reduce travel is also on the table for implementation.

“In southern Maine, we’re fairly regionalized to begin with,” said Walton. “I think that some sports may see a schedule blown up and completely redone, and others may just be tinkered with based on who we’re playing in that particular sport,” said Walton.

One of the key obstacles for schools returning to fall sports are the numerous safety concerns that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stevens, Walton, and Plante all agreed that the safety and protection of students, coaches, and staff is paramount for the success of the upcoming season.

“It’s going to be a unique time,” said Plante. “I think we’re going to have to be flexible from how we normally approach things, including transportation. I think if we’re creative and flexible, and everyone is on the same page, then the product will take care of itself and everyone will have a great experience,” said Plante. He noted the smaller student population of OOB does have its advantages during the COVID-19 pandemic. Old Orchard Beach HS has the smallest student population out of the three schools, with 325 students in 2019-20, according to Student Enrollment Data from the Maine Department of Education.

Walton added, “There are going to have to be sport-specific plans in place for how you are going to conduct that activity safely.”

For schools both small and large, administrators and coaches will need to develop new and creative concepts that can help to limit the potential spread of COVID-19. Stevens cited that one of the outcomes of the pandemic has been schools willing to share information with others in order to facilitate best practices. This teamwork, as Stevens noted, will continue to be critical for schools to reopen and athletics to resume this fall.

“There has been a tremendous investment of energy by all school personnel to try to figure out how to manage something that has never been put on their plate before,” said Stevens. “As athletic administrators, certainly within our conference and our state, we’ve had to do more collaboration with people in our own state, and outside of the state, than we’ve ever had to do before. Athletics are typically competitive, and coaches and teams like to have trade secrets. In the world of athletics leadership, we can’t operate that way. If there is information or data that could help a colleague at another school, then that’s good for all of us because it benefits everyone,” said Stevens.

With a return to sports on the horizon, it could provide a morale boost for students, coaches, and the community.

“If we’re lucky enough to return to any type of athletics, regardless of what that looks like, it may just add a small element of normalcy to a huge population of kids,” said Walton. “For a huge population of our kids, including my own daughter, the school experience is academics and athletics, which is a big piece of their development and their identity. If it’s deemed that (fall) sports aren’t going to happen, then I will support it based on the fact that safety is number one. But if we are lucky enough to start on Sept. 8, with kids back in school at that time, then hopefully we’re on our way back to a sense of normalcy in the future.”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: