Cross country is considered a low-risk sport and hopes to start its fall season next week. File photos.

The waiting is the hardest part.

Tom Petty’s words have never rung more true than over the past couple of weeks when athletes, coaches, administrators, parents, fans and even media members have ridden an emotional roller-coaster, waiting to learn if we’ll have a fall sports season and if so, what it might look like.

On Aug. 27, one day after its Sports Medicine Committee gave its approval, the Maine Principals’ Association gave the OK for the fall sports season to begin, with restrictions (see below), but last Tuesday, the state responded that some of the guidelines were inadequate, returning matters to square one.

The MPA had established soccer as a moderate-risk activity in line with guidelines from the National Federation of State High School Associations, but community sports guidelines were revised by the state, with soccer moving into a moderate-risk category. Under those guidelines, soccer could play regionalized games, but volleyball, also a moderate-risk activity, could only play matches outside and football remained a high-risk activity, which means it could not play games against other opponents, only hold intra-squad scrimmages.

The state expressed the following concerns to the MPA: face coverings, keeping spectators at sporting events three to six feet apart and protocol if a student-athlete comes in contact with a person who is a confirmed positive for COVID-19. The MPA’s fall sports guidelines called for parents to notify schools in that instance. However, the Maine Department of Education also recommended that anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 isolate for 14 days. Those that came in contact with someone who tested positive would also need to quarantine.

The following day, the MPA, the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and Governor Janet Mills’ administration jointly agreed to delay the start of the season by a week in an effort to find common ground.

“The Maine Principals’ Association agrees with the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education that it would be best to extend the delay of fall sports by one additional week to allow schools to get their academic programs underway as we further adjust our guidance,” said MPA executive director Mike Burnham, in a press release. “In the coming days, we will work closely and collaboratively with the administration to modify our guidance and arrive at a solution that will honor the state’s safety protocols and protect the health and safety of student-athletes along with their communities. We continue to work toward an agreement.”

“I am a firm believer in the value of school sports which support the physical, social and mental health of young people,” said Governor Mills, in the press release. “I want to see fall sports come back this year in a way that protects the health of students on the field, in the locker room and in the classroom, while safeguarding members of the larger community. I am asking my commissioners to work as a team with the MPA, the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association to address concerns about the guidance as quickly as possible with the most important goal in mind: protecting the health and safety of Maine students, their extended families, their teachers and fellow students and all members of our broader Maine community.”

While the MPA and state agencies are expected to finally have a unified response within days, whatever follows will be unprecedented as concerns about COVID-19 dominate thoughts and actions.

The first official date of fall practices is Monday, Sept. 14 (the original start date was Aug. 17) and for now, the first countable games are scheduled to be held Sept. 25 (last Wednesday was the original start date).

Other than that, however, there’s a lot of speculation but few concrete answers.

Primed to start

It does appear that cross country and golf will have a green light to proceed, although even those sports, which are listed as “low-risk” will have an abbreviated campaign.

Cross country is expected to have staggered starts and runners needing to leave the finish area as quickly as possible following a race.

Deering boys’ cross country coach Frank Myatt has his share of unanswered questions.

“I’m guessing we’ll run dual meets with a local schedule,” Myatt said. “We’ll have to ramp up quickly. I usually get to establish relationships early in the summer, but not this year, so it will be about who did individual workouts during the summer and transferring that to the fall. The big piece for us is around an end date. Will we have regionals? States? What will that look like? There’s still a lot of moving parts.”

Golf is expected to follow the same guidelines established by the Maine State Golf Association which were used during the summer. Players will not touch the flag and rakes in sand traps will not be used.

“I hear so many different things, I don’t know what to say to the kids,” said Cheverus golf coach Billy Goodman. “I do know that golf courses have been packed this summer and numbers are up huge at every course, so golf should be fine to play. We’ll just spread out and be careful.”

Likely to play

Waynflete is one of several local soccer teams defending a state title. The Flyers probably won’t get a chance to win another this fall under current restrictions.

Field hockey and soccer coaches were hopeful at press time that they’ll manage some semblance of a season. The number of games are certain to be shortened from the traditional 14-game schedule and teams will likely only play foes in close geographic proximity, which could result in the renewal of ancient rivalries like Falmouth-Yarmouth soccer, along with cross-conference play, which to date, has only happened in the preseason and postseason.

Field hockey rule changes include only one substitute entering a game at a time and the removal of the penalty box chair. Officials could also have the discretion to blow their whistle and stop play if too many players wind up in a scrum.

Freeport coach Marcia Wood is not only preparing for the start of school (Freeport begins Tuesday), she can also start conditioning athletes Tuesday. While Wood admits she’s optimistic as to what’s to come, she’s not sure what her season will look like.

“I’m excited to see the kids,” Wood said. “We don’t know what we’re playing for, but we just want to play. My team is almost all seniors. I have 16 of them. They know our drills and played a lot this summer. They’d be heartbroken if they can’t play their senior year. We could be good, but we just want to play as long as we can.”

As for soccer, sliding tackles could be eliminated and only a limited number of players will be allowed in the box on throw-ins and corner kicks.

“I would have liked to have started earlier, but at least we’re starting,” said longtime Falmouth boys’ coach Dave Halligan, whose Yachtsmen won the Class A state title last autumn. “We’re going to get to play some, I hope, though I’m almost at the point now where I’ll believe it when I see it. The way they’re handling this season we really don’t know who’s making the decision.”

Longtime Yarmouth boys’ soccer coach Mike Hagerty believes that any kind of season would represent a step forward.

“There’s a good chance we could play eight games, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to have playoffs,” said Hagerty, whose Clippers have won five of the past six Class B state championships. “I’d certainly rather have eight games and be able to practice four days a week than have nothing. We’re not going to cut anyone this year. We’ll find places for kids to play. We’ll make practices fun and have warm-up music, inter-squad scrimmages and act like it’s a game.”

Hagerty, who like Wood, is also starting his teaching year Tuesday, credited the powers that be who have been diligent in trying to start the season.

“Dave (Yarmouth athletic director David Creech) and (superintendent Andrew) Dolloff want to have a season,” Hagerty said. “The MPA wants to have a season. They get a lot of grief, but they’ve done a great job trying to make it happen. I’m trying to remain optimistic. The kids want to play.”

“I’m sure everyone is doing their best to make sure we can offer programming in a safe manner,” said Dolloff. “I just wish there had been a multi-agency group working on this back in May and June, as was done on a wide variety of other fronts. This was a ‘miss,’ and it was a big miss, but everyone is learning as they go through this and we should be in better shape for decisions around winter and spring sports.”

Not looking so good

Falmouth’s quest for a third straight Class A volleyball title probably won’t happen this autumn.  

Then, there’s football and volleyball, two sports that appear to be on the outside looking in.

When the MPA gave the initial OK to volleyball, it was under the condition that players wear masks, but ultimately, under new restrictions, it can’t be played indoors.

“Basically the death knell for volleyball was signed on that letter to the MPA which basically requires them to follow the Community Sports guidelines,” said Yarmouth volleyball coach Jim Senecal, whose Clippers are two-time defending Class B state champions.

Football, meanwhile, is listed as high-risk, meaning it can only conduct intra-squad workouts. It’s possible the sport (like volleyball) could play later in the school year, but that’s not guaranteed.

At least 18 states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, have cancelled football this fall, while several others have gone ahead, bolstering the cause for local coaches, who are adamant the sport should be given an opportunity.

“I’m really bummed out and very disappointed,” Brunswick football coach Dan Cooper said. “I’ve got 45, 50 kids that were looking forward to playing football. We wanted a chance to repeat as Northern B champs. We were going for a three-peat. Now we don’t have a chance.

“These kids are going to forever have a bad taste in their mouth. That they didn’t get to play their senior year.”

Press Herald staff writers Steve Craig and Mike Lowe and Kennebec Journal staff writer Travis Lacarczyk contributed to this story.

Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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