There will be no crowning of a state champion in football this fall, along with soccer, field hockey, and volleyball, as the state released its plans for the upcoming fall sports season on Sept. 10. Thornton Academy, which won its last state title in 2018 (pictured), will wait to see the fate of football in 2021. Courtesy Photo/Jeff Christenbury

SACO — The roller coaster of decisions regarding high school sports in Maine has taken a dramatic and final turn, as state agencies released updated community sports guidelines on Sept 10. For players and coaches involved with football and volleyball, the news was sobering: their seasons were postponed “until late winter or early spring.” For York County the news is even more bleak, because of the high number of cases of COVID-19 in the area, no fall sports will be played at all, unless the level of cases decreases.

”According to a joint press release from the Office of the Governor, the Department of Education, the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, and Maine School Management Association, fall sports sans football and volleyball are allowed to proceed, if approved by each district’s local school board and superintendent. The county the school is located in must also be labeled as “Green” by the Maine DOE; counties that are “Yellow” or “Red” are not allowed to participate in extracurricular events, according to the MPA. York County is yellow for a second consecutive week, due to several community outbreaks of COVID-19. On Sept. 11, 15 of the state’s 32 confirmed new COVID-19 cases were located within York County. Golf, cross country, field hockey, and boys and girls soccer received permission to play altered seasons in all counties except York County, as all other counties are labeled “Green” due to their low level of COVID-19 cases.

The news of football being delayed to potentially late winter or early spring did not sit well with Thornton Academy head coach Kevin Kezal. “I’m very disappointed that we’re not playing this fall. I think in some parts of the country, a floater season could work, such as in the warmer states, but I just don’t see it working here in Maine,” said Kezal. “If you start in late winter or early spring in Maine, you’re going to have to practice indoors to start. But if volleyball is going on at the same time, there won’t be a place to practice. It’s also traditionally the high flu season during that time. In southern Maine, you might be able to pull it off with turf fields. I was talking with coach Michael Hathaway from Leavitt HS, and they had plowable snow on May 1 last year. And there’s very few turf fields to play on in central and northern Maine. I hope it works out, but there’s a lot of things working against it,” said Kezal.

Kezal was quick to point out that the leadership and resilience shown by his players and the community were highlights for him and his coaching staff. “I’ve been impressed by the outpouring of support here, from parents and our fans, and certainly our players have done an outstanding job of handling all of this. The last two days of school, I’ve seen players I haven’t seen since March. I worry about the guys; I think a lot of them are hurting. We’re going to move on and support them, and figure out what we can do,” said Kezal.

One of those players for Coach Kezal is senior captain Daniel Tarbox, who is looking to play football at the collegiate level next year. Tarbox, a three-year starter for the Trojans at defensive end and tight end, was looking forward to capping off his career at TA with his longtime friends and teammates. “We’re all super close because we’ve all played on the same teams since we’ve been little kids. This season was very important to us because we wanted one more season together and to try to win another State Championship,” said Tarbox. “It definitely upsets us, but everyday everyone’s in the gym after school, and we’re all still close and we’re hoping we can play eventually.”

In a memo sent to schools on Sept. 11, the MPA has given the go-ahead for football teams across the state to participate in a 7-on-7 regional schedule this fall. While it may not resemble traditional 11-man football, schools that participate can play a maximum of 10 games against regional opponents, with the first countable game on Sept. 25, with the last contest held no later than Nov. 14. There will be no playoff format, and no state champion will be crowned in 2020. In this format, players will be encouraged to wear flags that will be pulled to mark a player as “tackled”, and no football equipment, such as helmets or shoulder pads, will be allowed. A unique twist on the 7-on-7 format will be that the traditional linemen will be the “skill” players for the first and third quarters, and the usual skill players will take the field for the second and fourth quarters. This move is to encourage linemen to stay active and a part of the team. A team may keep their traditional QB for all four quarters, which will feature 15-minutes of running time and stop only for limited interruptions.


In Old Orchard Beach, Dean Plante has the unique distinction of being not only the school’s 8-man football coach, but also their athletic director. As he has been focusing on the issue of fall sports in the middle of a pandemic, both as a coach and school administrator, he felt that his players were well-equipped to take on a new challenge that has been presented to them. “We have a pretty big senior group that took the bull by the horns when we decided to go to 8-man to begin with. They’ve dealt with change, found positives, and they’re an upbeat group. We told the team we’ll do whatever they allow us to do in the fall, and we’ll look at the spring as an opportunity to be breaking ground into new territory, like we did last year with 8-man,” said Plante.

As an athletic director, Plante felt a decision on football in particular could have been made earlier by all parties involved. “I thought that if there was any question that football in the fall was in doubt, we should have looked at options awhile ago. I think we could move some spring sports back a little further … I think it’s well worth the effort to have a season.”

The other fall sport that felt the greatest impact was volleyball. One of the fastest-growing sports in Maine, based on participation numbers, volleyball is the only fall sport played exclusively indoors, which was a major factor in it’s postponement to late winter or early spring. Due to state mandates, only 50 people may congregate in one indoor area, which would pose significant issues with hosting volleyball contests. Another issue at play for the sport was the use of masks during games and practices. The latest community sports guidelines required that masks be worn by players and coaches at all times for volleyball. With the state’s decision, volleyball players may practice this fall, but must do so outdoors. It remains to be seen what impact the community sports guidelines could have on determining the winter sports season, which are all played indoors.

For the fall sports scheduled to begin on Sept. 14, their seasons will be dramatically different from the year’s past. In golf and cross county, shortened seasons are expected. However, these two sports hold the distinction of the only fall sports that will crown state champions this year, according to the MPA. Boys and girls soccer, along with field hockey, will play regular seasons, but not have any playoffs or state championships.

Lori Smith, head coach of Thornton Academy’s field hockey program, is holding out hope that a fall season is still possible in York County. “I’m hopeful that if we go ‘green’ in the next month, we could try to get something in. The season has been extended to mid-November, so it will be cold, but we could still play,” said Smith. “I feel really bad for my seniors, especially since they’ve been dedicated four-year varsity players that would like to finish out their career by being able to step out on the field in a real game.”

Kaleigh Miller, a senior captain for Smith, was unsure about the prospects of a fall season occurring, and would have preferred to have the entire slate of fall athletics be moved to a floater season in-between the traditional winter and spring sports seasons. “We’re not very hopeful due to the recent outbreaks in York County. We would have rather been moved to the spring, because the rest of the state of Maine can play right now, and we can’t,” said Miller. The first countable contests for fall sports approved to play is Sept. 25.

Throughout the challenges to athletics presented by COVID-19, the teamwork, bonds, and leadership skills developed in athletics have been evidenced by many players and communities throughout the state. “Our kids are pretty resilient, and most kids are, and it’s now the adults job to stay positive and find a way to make things happen for the best possible scenarios,” said Plante.

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