The Waterville Senior High School football team had just finished warmups Tuesday when first-year head coach Isaac LeBlanc divided up the flags. Half the team got green, the other half yellow.

The Purple Panthers were about to get their introduction to 7-on-7 football.

“It gives us a chance to at least continue the sport and not just practice. I think it’s great for right now,” Waterville senior Nate Weir-Pooler said. “Coach Isaac over there, he works at the Y (Alfond Community Center). Growing up, he used to run rec leagues. You had dodge ball, flag football. It’s really like a growing-up sport, learning how to play football, learning to run, basic stuff.”

Added Waterville senior AJ Kalacinski: “For seniors, it sucks we don’t get to play a full season, but a game’s a game. Being able to play, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

The MPA announced on Sept. 10 in a joint statement with Gov. Janet Mills’ administration that it had come to an agreement on all COVID-19 safety measures for most sports to be played during the pandemic.

But tackle football, which is classified as a high-risk activity in state and national guidelines, along with volleyball was postponed until late winter/early spring.

The decision disheartened players and coaches, but school administrators began exploring alternatives, including 7-on-7 games played either in-house or against regional opponents.

The MPA recently released guidelines for 7-on-7 football, which include no tackling. Every play is a pass and quarterbacks are allowed four seconds to get rid of the ball. The game, which has its roots in “touch football,” is played in four, 15-minute quarters of running time, with the clock stopping only for timeouts, injury, penalty, or score. The MPA recommended linemen groups play in quarters one and three.

MPA executive director Mike Burnham said Tuesday that schools can decide how and who they want to play, provided contact guidelines are followed. Teams can play games against opponents in their own county or an adjacent one.

“We set the guidelines for 7-on-7, how they approach those guidelines is entirely up to them,” Burnham said. “How they approach that has to be left up to the coaches and the schools that they’re competing against.”

Athletic directors and coaches across the state said Tuesday that plans for 7-on-7 football are coming together.

Lisbon football players run a drill during practice Tuesday in Lisbon. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“There’s definitely energy for doing something for our kids,” Maine Central Institute (Pittsfield) head football coach Tom Bertrand said. “Our ultimate goal is to get to a spring season. Our sights are set on that.”

Others aren’t as confident a late winter/early spring is possible, considering the harsh Maine winters.

“This might be our only shot at football this year,” Freeport AD Craig Sickels said. “It’s nice to know football got moved to the end of the winter — but do you hear that word? Winter. We can’t play football on grass in March, even April. We have a hard time getting our spring teams outside by April break, and we are in southern Maine.

“This is the best and possibly last chance to have any kind of football. There’s just no guarantee with the weather and COVID-19 later.”

Sickels added that he hopes to schedule several 7-on-7 contests against schools within a 20-minute ride from Freeport.

“Brunswick, Mt. Ararat, Morse, Lisbon, Greely, Yarmouth, they are all close,” he said. “If we can get four or five of them to play, we can do it. We are ready. Carpe diem, seize the day.”

Mt. Ararat AD Geoff Godo said his school will offer 7-on-7 football and will be pursuing competition against nearby schools.

“We are excited to be able to provide 7-on-7 football to our students,” he said.

Added Falmouth coach John Fitzsimmons: “You have to kind of pull back and put it in perspective and say, ‘What are you trying to get out of this fall?’ And for us, it is install that offense and defense and make sure they really understand it, and understand it’s a little different intensity, and you better build in some fun so that they feel like this is a great place to go after school. Because if it’s just a drudge and they have no game, all of a sudden, you have them not showing.”

At Skowhegan, coach Ryan Libby said the team received approval from its school board and Superintendent Jon Moody to conduct practices without pads and workout sessions. Skowhegan hopes to schedule 7-on-7 games, but will be required to exclusively play teams in a small pod. Libby said Skowhegan is reaching out to nearby rivals Mt. Blue (Farmington), Messalonskee (Oakland), and Lawrence (Fairfield) to gauge interest.

Maranacook coach Jordan DeMillo received permission to go forward with 7-on-7 football Monday and said his team is excited to have a competitive outlet.

“I talked to the players, and said ‘what do you guys want to do?’ ” he said. “They said they wanted to play competitively. Even if nothing came of it, it was something. … I definitely think there’s some enthusiasm among my skill players, because we might be able to play teams we wouldn’t normally be able to play. Cony’s right down the road.”

DeMillo said he didn’t want 7-on-7 to come as a replacement this year for tackle football.

“I hope that it is not easier in the spring to dismiss the season because they gave us something this fall,” he said. “That’s my only fear.”

Brewer athletic director Dave Utterback said there is interest amongst Bangor-area schools in playing 7-on-7 games. New Bucksport AD Aaron Ward said a 7-on-7 football proposal was going before his district’s school board Tuesday night.

Should it pass — and Ward was hopeful it would — practices would ramp up in intensity this week.

“We will flip the switch if we get the green light,” he said. “We are still getting some clarity, but I believe once schools get approval from their boards to play 7-on-7, a lot of ADs will get together and hash out a schedule based on geography. For us, Ellsworth, maybe Brewer, possibly MDI, they could be possibilities if we all get approval to play.”

Lisbon AD Eric Hall said he, too, is pursuing 7-on-7 should it be offered. The Greyhounds won the Class D state title last fall.

“A lot of coaches are discussing what 7-on-7 will look like, how it can impact things,” he said. “I think we are looking at all aspects. we are open to 7-on-7. Really, we are open to anything to be affiliated with football even though it won’t be what it was when we stepped off the field last November.”

Maine is one of 18 states that has cancelled or postponed tackle football this fall, according to the National Federation of High Schools. New Hampshire is the lone New England state that will play the sport in the pandemic.

In Vermont, all 30 football programs elected to play 7-on-7, with regional scheduling. Games there begin the weekend of Sept. 25. Some states, including Texas, offer 7-on-7 leagues, as well as tackle.

Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale’sNick Keezer, left, tries to catch a pass as Evan Jones plays defense Tuesday at practice in Winthrop. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Gardiner football coach Pat Munzing said his team is looking at competitive 7-on-7 games, as well as another format that would be more situational and instructional. For example, one game could be a typical 7-on-7 contest, whereas another could see the teams playing out specific scenarios.

“Right now we’re in that mix of ‘how do we get the most for our kids?’ ” he said. “We’re looking to try to balance some competition with development. … You could run a number of different coverages and completely eliminate their ability to do anything in 7-on-7, it would just come down to man vs. man all the time. But that really doesn’t develop your kids as far as football knowledge and football skill, because that’s not realistic when it comes time for an actual season.”

Some schools are still awaiting approval from their school boards before they begin 7-on-7 play. Mt. Blue head coach Scott Franzose said his board is expected to make a decision Tuesday night, and a football program will plan a path forward Wednesday. At Mount View, which like Waterville was planning to play eight-man football this fall, board approval was expected to come this week. Coach Rick Leary said a number of players who worked hard in the offseason have a bitter taste in their mouth with how the season was postponed.

“I won’t know until the end of the week. We all feel that we’ve been punched right in the gut,” Leary said.

Defections to other sports is a concern. Leary said some Mount View players decided on playing soccer this fall. Winslow co-head coach Wes Littlefield said his team has seen players leave to join the school’s soccer and cross country teams this fall. Littlefield and co-head coach Pete Bolduc plan to meet with their team Wednesday night to form a plan for the fall.

“They’re not going to wait around. They want to compete. Every week that goes by, the number of our kids dwindles,” Littlefield said.

Staff writer Drew Bonifant, sports editor Bill Stewart and Portland Press Herald staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.

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