After a series of fits and starts, an abbreviated, unorthodox fall sports season got the go ahead last week.

In a joint announcement last Thursday afternoon with Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, the Maine Principals’ Association expressed that due to safety concerns in regards to COVID-19, it will not offer football or volleyball, but all other high school sports, including golf, cross country, field hockey and soccer, can begin countable play next week.

“There’s not a single answer because there’s not a single sport,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC. “If we have learned one thing it’s that there are ways to do risky things safer and that’s what’s got to be the goal for us right now.”

The last countable contest came more than six months ago (the hockey state games, March 7) and the spring sports season was cancelled by the virus, but practices are underway and it appears that local athletes will have something to look forward to.

“Now that the MPA guidelines have been shown to align with (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) standards, we’re going to move forward with each of our programs as allowed by the MPA,” said Andrew Dolloff, the superintendent of Yarmouth schools. “It’s too bad that some students won’t get to play the sport of their choice this fall, but maybe they’ll have a shot at that later in the year. It’s another one of the sacrifices we are all making to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Protracted decision

Last week’s announcement ended a weeks-long, drawn-out process that involved the MPA and several state agencies. The start of the fall season, twice delayed since Aug. 17, has frustrated athletes and coaches. Others have questioned whether interscholastic sports could hamper efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The MPA began working with the Maine Department of Education in the spring on how to resume high school sports, devising a four-stage approach for allowing coaches to begin conditioning workouts with players starting in early July. Later that month, it started working on detailed plans for the fall season.

On Aug. 26, the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee made its recommendation to approve all sports. A day later, its Interscholastic Management Committee accepted that recommendation, and sent the association’s updated safety guidelines to the state for review.

On Sept. 1, state officials responded by saying the principals association failed to follow the state’s COVID-19 safety guidelines in several instances in its plan for the return of sports and recommended it again delay the start of fall sports to address those issues.

Since then, the principals group has been working with state officials to come to a consensus on what fall sports can be played, and under what safety guidelines. Those guidelines, which included a sport-by-sport breakdown, were released last week.

Burnham noted that his organization worked with the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Boards Association to come up with the guidelines.

Not this fall

Cheverus, Portland and every other high school football team in the state won’t be taking the field until the spring, at the earliest. File photos

The MPA announced it wouldn’t offer tackle football for the upcoming season due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

“The time isn’t right yet for football,” said Dr. William Heinz, the chair of the Maine Principals’ Association’s Sports Medicine Committee. “And I understand. We are one of the lowest COVID incidence rates in country and we want to keep it there. We want to keep as many people safe as possible.”

Heinz, who early in the summer thought there was no way football could be played, came around after watching the sport be played across the country with no outbreaks. He decided Maine’s football players deserved a chance to play, or at least start their season, and recommended as such.

“In the end,” Heinz said last week, “it’s still a risk.”

Under the new guidelines, football teams will be allowed to play 7-on-7 touch or flag football against other nearby schools and MPA officials say they hope to offer tackle football, during late winter or early spring.

“My initial feeling, when they mentioned they might do it in the spring, I thought it was a good idea,” Brunswick coach Dan Cooper said. “It was going to be a shortened season anyway. I don’t know if we would have been able to have playoffs at this point. I think the spring is the way to go. Now they’ve got time to plan it and organize it, instead of just kind of winging it here at the end.”

Others disagree.

South Portland football coach Aaron Filieo, a vocal proponent of playing football this fall, said “(I) can’t wrap my head around” why Maine, with one of the nation’s lowest COVID-19 rates, isn’t playing football this fall when over 30 other states have begun or plan to begin playing the sport, especially after the principals association made a decision on Aug. 27 to sponsor football.

“How is it with other states with high COVID numbers, with over 1,000 games played and no community outbreaks, we’re not playing?” Filieo said. “I’m just curious to know what the reasoning and rationale is behind the decisions being made? How is it the MPA makes a decision and Augusta completely hijacks their finding? I just think we need some answers to that. The lack of communication and transparency through this has been abhorrent.”

Maine becomes the 19th state, along with the District of Columbia, to postpone tackle football this fall. New Hampshire is the only New England state that will play football this fall. Thirty-seven states have modified their fall seasons in response to the pandemic.

A late winter or early spring season raises several question marks. The biggest is finding suitable fields, as northern and smaller schools will have limited access to turf – which likely will be needed as grass fields are mostly unplayable in March and into April because of Maine’s unrelenting winters.

The MPA said it will work with schools to provide opportunities.

Local volleyball teams hope to get their chance to play sometime early next year. 

Volleyball’s inability to play this autumn is due to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education, along with the Maine School Superintendents Association, do not believe athletic competitions should be held indoors. That goes for indoor practices, as well.

“I understand we are the one indoor sport, but I don’t understand how one sport is safer than another,” said Cape Elizabeth coach Sarah Boeckel. “In soccer you’re just as close to another player. To me, soccer is almost as aggressive as football, but (if) we can gather and play, I’m glad for that. (If) they don’t take that away from us, then that is fantastic.”

Boeckel, whose Capers have played in the past three Class B state title matches, added that salvaging a spring season would be ideal.

“I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to do that,” Boeckel said. “From what I understand other states are shortening the season and having four seasons. A lot of middle schools do that, and kids end up playing four sports.”

Maine joins at least five other states – Rhode Island, Minnesota, New York, Illinois and Washington – that will try for a spring season. Hawaii is planning on a winter volleyball season in January. Vermont is playing volleyball this fall, but all matches will be held outdoors.

Scarborough coach Kim Stoddard is also holding out hope for a season to be played at some point.

“I just kind of reiterated (to the team) that any chance we get to be together – even if we played outside – that would be new and different and just hoping for the best for the spring,” said Stoddard. “I know my kids will come out and play.”

“Certainly you feel bad for the athletes that participate in football and volleyball, but we couldn’t offer those activities,” Burnham said. “Our recommendation for schools is that they try to find a way to keep the kids engaged in any of these activities or encourage the kids to try other activities.”

Game on, but no playoffs

Mt. Ararat’s field hockey team is excited to have an opportunity to play this fall. 

Soccer and field hockey will play a maximum of 10 games between Sept. 25 and Nov. 14, but for the first time in nearly five decades, won’t hold a postseason (soccer state games began in 1970 and field hockey in 1976).

“It was a lot of relief, sinc  it was a long waiting game, with many delays, a lot of nerves and a lot of frustration along the way,” Mt. Ararat field hockey coach Krista Chase added. “But also a lot of hope. I could tell that people were working really hard to try to make some type of season happen for as many sports as possible.

“We’re celebrating within our little field hockey community, but then our hearts are also breaking for (football and volleyball) athletes and coaches and programs and parents. I’m so excited for field hockey, and there’s a part of me that feels a little guilty for it.”

“You always want more, but I think we’re happy just that we’re having a season,” longtime Greely boys’ soccer coach Mike Andreasen said. “It was nice for them to finally say ‘You know what? Let’s get these kids out on the field.’ Even if it’s not playing for championships, or even if it’s not playing the full 14-game schedule, it’s still a good thing. It’s still a really good thing.

“(We’re) not out of the water yet. Anytime you’re not out of the water yet, you can still get bitten by the shark. Even though it is official, it can be unofficial very fast.”

Yarmouth’s boys’ soccer team won’t be playing for a state title this fall, but will have some games to play against top opponents. 

Mike Hagerty, the coach of Yarmouth’s boys’ soccer program, winner of five of the past six Class B state titles, was upbeat as well.

“(The team) was nervous, especially the seniors, some of whom had lost their spring sport,” Hagerty said. “We have over 50 kids that play soccer and of that, I think 97 percent of them play multiple sports. They were certainly anxious, but I was really proud of them. They did a fabulous job staying fit and staying ready in case we did have a season. We have a lot to be thankful for in Yarmouth and we have a lot to be grateful for and we remind our kids of that often.”

Postseason in the works

Golf will have a regular season consisting of 11 available dates (excluding Sundays) between Sept. 23 and Oct. 6. Teams normally would have already played half of their 10-match regular seasons by Sept. 23. The state team and individual championships will be combined. They are scheduled for Oct. 9 (Class A) and Oct. 10 (B and C).

Similarly, cross country now has a three-week regular season that runs from Sept. 25 to Oct. 17.

Regional and championship meet formats have not been set.

Press Herald staff writers Steve Craig and Mike Lowe and Kennebec Journal staff writers Drew Bonifant and Dave Dyer contributed to this story

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

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