Linebacker Adrian Otero runs a drill during a University of Maine football practice earlier this week. The Black Bears have their sights set on a six-game conference schedule planned for the spring. University of Maine athletics photo

As the University of Maine football team gathered on the practice field on Monday, Coach Nick Charlton noted that it was the first time in 321 days that they had practiced as a team.

The coronavirus pandemic shut down college sports last March, canceling the Black Bears’ spring practices, and the Colonial Athletic Association called off the 2020 football season on July 17. The CAA has announced it intends to play a six-game conference spring schedule beginning March 6.

Stepping onto the field this week provided some relief for the Black Bears.

“Just getting back with the guys, some who I haven’t seen in almost a year, which seems crazy but is what it is, just getting out there with them, it’s hard to explain,” said sophomore quarterback Joe Fagnano. “To go back out there, first time out with the (defense), our helmets on … practice was normal, like everything went away for a minute and we got to play football for a while.”

And as Charlton said in a Zoom conference call with reporters Thursday, it’s important that the Black Bears practice. And not just because Maine has 37 new players on its roster, including transfers and freshmen.

“This time is critical for every single person,” he said, noting many players were meeting teammates for the first time this week. “We have to get our practices in. If we’re not able to do that, we would not be able to play in the spring. You can’t go a calendar year without practicing.”

Thursday morning was the first practice in full pads. “Guys were flying around,” said Charlton, who guided the Black Bears to a 6-6 record in 2019, his first season as head coach. “It felt like football.”

Mike Laverriere, a junior tight end from Arundel and Thornton Academy, said that while the team has been lifting weights and working out for six weeks – and holding socially distanced positional meetings – nothing beats playing. “I came here to play football, not just work out,” he said.

The Black Bears are practicing with several COVID-19 safety protocols. All players wear a face mask at all times, as do the coaches. And the helmets have been fitted with splash shields that cover the area of the face mask around the nose and mouth.

Other safety measures include limiting the number of players in the locker room, usually allowing positional groups in together. They don’t stretch out as a team before practice, instead doing it in pods so that they can socially distance.

Charlton said it’s critical for the Black Bears to do whatever they can to ensure they stay healthy.

“We know we can’t be going out and hanging out the normal college way,” said Laverriere. “Everyone is doing their part. Hopefully we’ll get back to normalcy soon. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

The spring season is also on everyone’s mind. Charlton noted that a lot has to take place for Maine to be able to play. Much will depend on where the nation is with the virus come March, but also where the state’s regulations and guidelines are.

Current state COVID-19 guidelines would limit the number of people who could attend a Maine home football game to 100. And travel restrictions could limit the states that the Black Bears could travel to, or limit which teams can travel to Orono without a 14-day quarantine or negative COVID test. Charlton noted the same rules would apply to hockey and basketball, which hope to play this winter.

“There need to be some changes,” said Charlton. “I think Maine has handled (the pandemic) very well, that’s my personal opinion. We play out of state. This is a Division I football program, the flagship for the entire system. Our kids, everyone, is putting in the work. But ultimately we need some state level administrators to help us out and get that done. Everyone knows it.”

And that’s why the players are focusing on what’s happening now, in practice, rather than what might happen in the spring.

“I just want to play football,” said Fagnano. “I’m not going to worry about whether or not it’s going to happen in the spring. I’ll just take it day by day with my team.”

NOTES: Raffaele Salamone, the former Deering High star who is now a junior defensive lineman for the Black Bears, is looking at surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Salamone said he injured the shoulder in the 2019 season and tried to heal it through rehab.

“Over the summer, I felt it more and more,” he said. “When we got back and did individual work and workouts, it got more and more sore. So we had an MRI done and it showed the tear.”

Salamone said he’s still attending practices and helping where he can.

“I’m just trying to be like an extension of our coach,” he said. “I’m staying positive in practice, helping the young guys. I’ve been here a while and know what to expect.”


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