SANFORD — On one field, 45 Sanford High football players gathered to run, catch and throw a football. On the artificial surface of Alumni Stadium, 27 Spartan girls’ soccer players ran and kicked and stretched, followed by about 30 field hockey players, who tapped the ball with the familiar tic-tac sounds off their sticks.

For some, it was a moment that didn’t seem real.

Mike Fallon, Sanford’s football coach, said walking up the gravel road Tuesday to the practice field “was surreal,” and not just for him. Pointing to his players as they loosened up and said, “Even the kids, until this moment, weren’t 100 percent sure this was real.”

For the first time this fall, Sanford High athletes and coaches were able to practice. While many schools in York County practiced on Monday, the Spartans waited one more day to make sure they had the proper COVID-19 safety protocols in place.

“This gives us a sense of hope because we haven’t been able to do much,,” said Abby Toothaker, a senior midfielder on Sanford’s girls’ soccer team, at the end of her team’s first practice. “It brought us some normalcy.”

Schools in York County have been sidelined for extracurricular activities, including sports, drama and music, since classes resumed in September because of a “yellow” designation in the state’s color-coded system to determine a school’s readiness to hold in-person classes. When the Maine Principals’ Association announced its plans for the fall season, it noted that schools in any county designated “yellow” would be unable to hold practices or play games. Last Friday, York County finally turned “green.”

“Honestly,” said Diana Walker, Sanford’s field hockey coach, who took over the program here in 1983, “I didn’t think we would have a season this year.”

Sanford, of course, has been at  the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreaks in York County that prompted the “yellow” designation. There was an outbreak at the Sanford Calvary Baptist Church, the nearby York County Jail and at several social clubs in and around Sanford.

Sanford High itself closed for two weeks beginning Sept. 21 when three COVID-19 cases were reported at  the school, as well as the Sanford Regional Technical Center. Fallon said the community got a bad rap.

“It’s been a little discouraging,” said Fallon. “It is what it is, as they say, but I hated about how it reflected on our school and community and in some sense on our kids. I can tell you as a school and a school district, we have gone above and beyond the protocols to create safe schools in the district. We have done it right. So it was hard to see that bad press.”

The Spartans did their best to change that. On Sept. 17, the school released a public service announcement that featured a group of Sanford High students that includes athletes, cheerleaders, members of the marching band, drama club and chorus. Their message was simple: “Wear a mask and keep your six.”

It was such a powerful video that Dr. Nirav Shah, the head of the Maine CDC and face of the state during the pandemic, applauded it on Twitter.

“We’d been trying to come up with a PSA and felt the kids speaking directly to the adults of the community would be far more effective than if adults and coaches spoke,” said Athletic Director Gordie Salls, who credited Brett Williams of the school’s performing arts center and Sarah Schnell of its television network. “I’m really proud of what they did.”

The practices Tuesday were easy, focusing on conditioning, but including sports-specific drills. And while no one knows how many games the teams might be able to get in this short season, which ends on Nov. 14, that doesn’t matter.

“It’s not quite how we wanted it to be our senior year,” said  defender Mollie Hludik of the girls’ soccer team. “But I’m happy we’re back on the field together and having fun and being able to interact and have fun.”

“It was the best feeling to be back,” said girls’ soccer Coach Ellie Agreste. “It felt natural and normal to be on the field and to see their faces for the first time.”

It was certainly different than the Zoom meetings held by coaches throughout the summer and early fall. “Everyone has fun on the field and you can’t see that on Zoom,” said Kallee Turner, a senior field hockey forward.

They know it may not last: another “yellow” designation next Friday will shut things down again. And that’s why they’re enjoying this precious time together right now. “I mean, as long as we at least get a week of playing together, it’s better than nothing,” said Ruby LaChance, a senior field hockey midfielder.

The football players have accepted the fact that they won’t play tackle, that 7 vs. 7 flag football is the best they can do. They clapped when Fallon announced they would have games against Biddeford and Noble.

“It’s nice to have something of a competitive nature,” said senior running back Daunte Altovino. “It’s something to look forward to.”

For Fallon, this first practice has been what he’s been looking forward to. He hadn’t seen many of the athletes in-person since last March.

“It’s been so long,” he said. “I’m looking at kids who are three inches taller than the last time they walked into the school building and they’ve got whiskers on their chins now. It’s just exciting to see them and see where they’re at in their lives and reconnect with them because there’s been a huge disconnect.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.