Winter sports at Maine high schools include ice hockey, basketball, swimming, skiing, indoor track and field, competitive cheerleading and wrestling. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine’s high school winter sports season has been delayed indefinitely, the Maine Principals’ Association announced Tuesday, saying it is working with state officials and educators to design COVID-19 safety protocols.

The principals’ association sent a memo Tuesday to member schools saying the “start of the winter sports season will NOT be Monday, Nov. 16.”

Mike Burnham, the association’s executive director, said there was no timetable for establishing a new date for the start of practices. Typically, games begin in early December.

“This is a process,” Burnham said. “We continue to work with all these stakeholders.”

Those stakeholders include the Maine Department of Education and representatives from the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Board Association.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services will play a key role in the decision-making process, as it did during the lengthy process to get high school sports restarted in the fall.

“We are hoping that we can begin to get information to people who are planning for winter sports in the near term, but we want to do so carefully and together,” DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said during Tuesday’s coronavirus media briefing.

Lambrew has previously acknowledged that the process of getting sports started this fall was flawed.

Lambrew said one goal while addressing safety measures needed for winter sports is to try to “more closely align community sports with school sports guidance, so there’s less daylight between them.”

The state’s community sports guidelines would need to be modified to allow for contests in many sports to be played this winter. The guidelines currently allow for only practices and intrasquad scrimmages for indoor sports such as basketball, ice hockey, swimming, competitive cheerleading and running events during indoor track and field meets. Games or competitions between teams in those sports are only allowed outdoors. Wrestling is deemed a higher-risk sport and meets are not allowed at all.

Cash McClure, a senior on the Maranacook boys’ basketball team says, “It’s kind of tough to hear that we’re not going to have a normal season for my senior year, but hopefully we’ll have something that we can play, and we’re just going to have to deal with it.” Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Cash McClure, a senior on the Maranacook boys’ basketball team, said he wasn’t surprised by the delay but remains hopeful for a winter season, even one that looks different than in years past.

“We were kind of all expecting something to happen, whether it gets pushed back or a shortened season,” he said. “It makes sense, I guess. It’s kind of tough to hear that we’re not going to have a normal season for my senior year, but hopefully we’ll have something that we can play, and we’re just going to have to deal with it.”

The MPA memo noted that many club programs, such as travel basketball or ice hockey programs, have continued to play throughout the fall, in some cases going out of state. Maine’s high school teams have been restricted to playing within their county or adjacent county.

“Having these teams continue to play, while the school-based programs are not allowed to play games, is an issue that is currently being addressed by state agencies,” the memo said. “Our office continues to emphasize that we feel that schools can do a much better job of safely providing these activities.”

Many athletic directors and coaches have argued that if schools don’t offer certain sports, students will find other avenues to pursue athletic passions.

“My concern is if you don’t do it in the schools, now you might have lost control and the schools will pay the price,” said Sue Thurston, Fryeburg Academy’s athletic director.

Amanda Kabantu of Portland High says of the winter season, “I was really looking forward to my whole senior year, so they shouldn’t take everything away.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“It’s not like just because they cancel high school sports we’re going to stay home and not do anything,” said Portland High senior Amanda Kabantu, a Varsity Maine All-State girls’ basketball selection who has committed to play at Bentley University. “If you’re passionate about your sport, you’re going to find another way to play the sport.”

At Portland’s public schools, sophomores, juniors and seniors have been studying remotely since the start of the school year.

“I was really looking forward to my whole senior year, so they shouldn’t take everything away,” Kabantu said. “If we don’t go to school, I should probably get to play some sports.”

Like Kabantu, Greely senior Camille Clement knows she’ll have basketball opportunities after high school. Clement has committed to play at Northeastern. But she’s still hopeful she’ll get some form of a senior season.

“Definitely. Being my senior year and my last chance to put on a Greely uniform and play with the teammates I’ve had the last three years and the incoming freshman, it was really exciting to think about,” Clement said. “It was going to be really fun. And hopefully it still will be.”

The individual sports committees of the MPA’s seven winter sports, along with music and drama officials, have been working to develop activity-specific guidelines, which they will present to the association’s Sports Medicine Committee. Burnham said once those recommendations are reviewed by the Sports Medicine Committee, they will be sent to state agencies “for any feedback they can provide so that they align with state guidelines.”

Burnham said the memo was sent because “we were starting to hear schools were getting pressure from ice rinks and other outside facilities to reserve time (for practices or games). So we decided to delay the start of the winter season.”

In the memo, Burnham noted that many schools may face facilities issues in the winter. Gymnasiums are being used for classrooms, study halls or cafeterias and many outside facilities, usually at colleges or community swimming pools or ice rinks, are not available.

“Right now our gym is used for overflow classroom (space),” said Cheverus Athletic Director Amy Ashley, who also noted that the school’s ice hockey, swimming and indoor track teams depend on public or college facilities, as is the case with most high schools.

“We’re all in the same boat. We’re all going to need to be creative to make this happen, that’s for sure,” Ashley said.

The start of the fall sports season was delayed three times before the state and principals association could agree on COVID-19 safety protocols. When they did, tackle football and indoor volleyball were not allowed. At the time, the principals’ association said it would work on a plan to try to play those sports instead in early 2021.

Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens said that experience should help make this process easier.

“What we know now is that, unlike in the fall, all the players involved in the decision-making process are not working on divergent paths, they’re working together,” he said. “And that’s an asset to the process. We’re not going to have people weighing in at the eleventh hour. They’re going to work together concurrently and collaboratively and figure out what’s in the best interest of the student-athletes in the winter.”

Gardiner girls’ basketball coach Mike Gray was not surprised by the delay to the winter season, and is hoping that officials will be able to work out a plan.

“I don’t think any of us realistically thought it was going to start on time,” he said. “It seems like all the interested parties – whether it’s the state, the MPA, the schools – are making an active effort to make it happen. I feel like they kind of ran out of time in the fall, but it seems like they’re looking into this stuff and they’re trying to get ideas going, hopefully with enough time to make something happen.”

Staff Writer Steve Craig, and Drew Bonifant of Central Maine Newspapers, contributed to this report.


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