The Portland/Deering girls’ hockey team heads onto the ice at Troubh Ice Arena in Portland for a skills workout on Thursday evening. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When it comes to high school sports, two questions have been asked repeatedly during the coronavirus pandemic: Can we play? And, when will we play?

This winter, you can add a third question when it comes to hockey, swimming and indoor track.

Where can we play?

Many high schools – especially in southern and central Maine – are scrambling to find facilities because their normal winter homes on the rinks and in the pools at college campuses have been closed to the public.

For indoor track, the problem is particularly acute. Every meet in the state is normally conducted at a college facility. With the closures – and the strict 50-person limit on indoor gatherings during the pandemic – there won’t be any indoor track as athletes typically know it.

Which means administrators have had to get creative to find ways to provide offerings for student athletes.

“Everyone needs to just be patient, flexible, and we all need to stay positive,” said Jeff Ramich, Brunswick High’s athletic director, whose teams won’t be able to use Bowdoin College’s rink, pool or field house this winter.

His hockey teams will be practicing at up to four arenas. For swimming, bus rides to the Wiscasset YMCA, which can accommodate only 18 swimmers per practice, are in the offing. And the indoor track team is looking to create one-event specialty meets in gyms and indoor training facilities.

High school swimmers compete at the Class B state championships in February at Bowdoin College. Colleges across the state are limiting access to their facilities during the pandemic, leaving many high school swim teams scrambling to find pools. Virtual swim meets will be the norm in Maine this winter. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“We throw ideas out, and if something sticks, then we’re trying to do research and seeing if it can happen,” Ramich said.

Compounding the issue for some schools is the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded system that determines the risk of COVID-19 community spread. If a county is designated red or yellow, its schools are unable to offer any interscholastic activities. In the DOE’s latest update on Friday, Androscoggin, Oxford and York counties were yellow.

Schools in those counties cannot offer in-person skills training. Coaches, however, can meet virtually with their students and offer workout plans.

HOCKEY

Even in a nonpandemic year, ice time is at a premium, especially practice times during comfortable after-school hours.

This winter, nine boys’ teams and three girls’ teams can’t get on their normal practice ice because college rinks are closed at Bowdoin, Colby, the University of Maine, the University of Southern Maine and the University of New England. In addition, Cape Elizabeth (both the boys’ and girls’ teams), South Portland (boys) and Scarborough (boys and girls) are shut out of Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, which hasn’t put in ice because the Maine Mariners’ ECHL season is canceled.

Portland/Deering hockey player Caitlin Huynh, left, puts on her goalie pads outside Troubh Ice Arena before a workout on Thursday. Teams have limited access to locker rooms because of COVID-19 safety protocols, and many players choose to put on gear before they enter the rink. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“We are trying to book ice wherever we can find it,” said Jeff Thoreck, Cape’s athletic director.

Knowing programs like Cape would need openings, the Maine Principals’ Association’s Ice Hockey Committee decided to limit each team to three hours of on-ice time per week during the preseason, which now stretches at least until Jan. 4.

For a program like Brunswick, which has relied on Bowdoin College for hockey practices and games, it will be a weekly scramble, with possible trips to North Yarmouth Academy’s Travis Roy Arena, Family Ice Center in Falmouth and the covered but unheated Casco Bay Arena, also in Falmouth. Last week, Brunswick also found some practice time at Troubh Ice Arena in Portland.

Troubh is typically home to the cooperative Portland/Deering boys’ and girls’ teams, the Cheverus boys and the Cheverus/Old Orchard Beach girls.

“I absolutely 100 percent understand why the MPA hockey committee put that (three-hour rule) in, with the number of boys’ and girls’ teams that use college facilities,” said Tom Clifford, the Portland/Deering girls’ coach. “I would have liked to have had four hours, but we’ll take three. And some of our practice times are at odd hours or later times than we’d usually have, but it’s 2020 and we have to do whatever we can for some sort of normalcy.”

Portland/Deering girls’ hockey coach Tom Clifford speaks with his players during a workout at Troubh Ice Arena. “Some of our practice times are at odd hours or later times than we’d usually have,” he says, “but it’s 2020 and we have to do whatever we can for some sort of normalcy.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Windham, which usually practices and plays at USM, has been able to get ice time at Bridgton Academy.

“I was lucky; we secured ice over the summer after we knew of USM’s position,” said Windham Athletic Director Rich Drummond. “We’re one of the lucky ones.”

In addition to the three-hour restriction opening time slots, Troubh rink manager Jake O’Donal said he also has some more leeway – at least for now – because the state’s Community Sports Guidelines prohibit intrasquad scrimmages until Jan. 4 and games until Jan. 11. Those restrictions are keeping men’s pick-up groups from renting and limiting the amount of time used by Casco Bay Youth Hockey, a regular tenant.

Boys’ teams from Gorham and Scarborough and both Cape Elizabeth teams are filling the openings.

“Once we factor in game slots, there could be Wednesday, Thursday and Saturdays where we’re doing three games a night, and then it will become more of a numbers crunch – and that’s just to get the home teams’ practices in,” O’Donal said.

Of course, games are not a certainty yet. The pandemic that has caused the college closures in the first place is currently surging at an unprecedented level in Maine and across the country. Plus, Maine’s Department of Education’s color-coded system can shut down high school athletics across an entire county on a week-to-week basis.

“The hardest part on our end, is every week is up in the air in terms of the county color codes,” O’Donal said. “If Cumberland gets put in the yellow category, it’s all canceled.”

Currently, Cumberland is a green county. But neighboring counties York and Androscoggin are yellow.

That means Biddeford Ice Arena General Manager Craig King has become a color-code watcher – just like the high school programs he normally hosts from Biddeford (boys and girls) and Thornton Academy (boys). The Kennebunk boys’ team is also planning on using Biddeford Ice Arena this year, because its home ice at the University of New England is a no-go.

The general manager of Biddeford Ice Arena estimates the rink has lost $70,000 to $80,000 in revenue this year because of the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Like all the state’s ice rinks, Biddeford Ice Arena already lost significant revenue in the early spring, summer and again this fall because of COVID closures.

“All said, in 2020 we’re sitting at probably $70,000 to $80,000 in lost revenue that most likely won’t be able to be recouped,” King said.

Until York County returns to green in the color coding, Biddeford Ice Arena will be hardly used.

“I would be lying if I was saying it’s not frustrating,” King said. “But do I have anything against the arenas that can skate? Absolutely not. Thank God they can operate. But it is frustrating that the county next to us is able to operate, and we’re sitting here with our hands tied.”

In Penobscot and Aroostook County, there are four ice arenas open to meet the needs of just seven high school boys’ teams.

“There is not a crunch in Penobscot County,” said David Utterback, Brewer High’s athletic director. Instead, the rinks are being hurt by the MPA’s three-hour preseason practice limit, according to Utterback.

“They created a rule that was well intended but could create a larger issue long term. The rinks are struggling financially,” Utterback said. “Penobscot Ice Arena (where Brewer and Hampden Academy play) is privately owned by a family. They lost a lot of key revenue months.

“And, there’s no competitive advantage because this year, with the geographic restrictions on travel, we won’t play the other teams. The hockey-playing pod is the seven schools,” Utterback said.

SWIMMING

Pool time is at a crunch for high school swimming programs. Mike Bisson, the assistant executive director of the MPA, estimated 50 percent of the pool’s used last year by high school teams, including those at colleges, are unavailable this year. Not all YMCAs, which traditionally offer pool time to high school teams, are open to group sessions.

Some schools have found practice time slots in new pools – Bonny Eagle and Cheverus, for example, have found practice times beginning this week at the Riverton Community Center, which is home to the Portland/Deering co-op team.

But there are some schools with no water right now, including Thornton Academy, Windham, Falmouth, Yarmouth and defending Class A girls’ state champion Kennebunk.

Last season, Kennebunk High celebrated its first Class A girls’ swimming championship. This winter, the Kennebunk swim teams don’t have access to a pool. Glenn Jordan photo

Coaches and athletic directors at those schools are trying to find ways to keep their swimmers engaged. Thornton Academy and Yarmouth are encouraging their swimmers to purchase memberships at their local YMCAs – in the case of Thornton, the facility in Biddeford; for Yarmouth, the facility in Freeport. Neither of those YMCA branches are allowing teams to use the pools this winter. But if a swimmer has a membership, he or she can receive an individual workout plan from the coach and go to the pool to work on it.

For those swimmers who don’t have a membership, and cannot afford one, each school is going to provide the cost of the membership, about $35 to $40 a month.

“That’s our plan right now,” said Dave Creech, the athletic director at Yarmouth. “Almost all of our kids have passes to the Y in Freeport. For those who don’t, we’re purchasing a seasons-worth of practices for them. For all the kids who sign up, the coaches will create for them workouts, and the kids will try to go in and get free swim time and work out on their own.”

Creech said the money for the memberships would normally have been used to rent time at the pool. He said he expected to purchase about 10 memberships.

“We just have to be creative,” he said. “It is so important they have an opportunity to participate in the sport they love.”

There is a caveat to the schools purchasing the membership, though. If a school buys the swimmer’s membership and the school is located in a “yellow” county, the student cannot practice. But if the student purchases the membership, he or she can receive a workout from the coach and practice.

“It’s just like if a skier has a ski pass at a local ski area,” said the MPA’s Bisson.

Kathy Leahy, the coach at Thornton Academy, has been unable to hold any in-person training sessions yet because the school is located in York County. But she has been impressed with the response of her swimmers. She said their virtual dry-land training consists of a combination of yoga, pilates, core strengthening exercises and calisthenics.

“We’ve been doing it a little differently, including some getting-to-know-you activities,” she said. “We’ve had everyone show their pets and introduce them. We’re just trying to have fun. When we sign off, they’re all saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ It has made an impact in a positive way to be part of something that is sort of normal.”

Andrew Coulombe, the coach at Kennebunk, is trying to keep his swimmers engaged as well. In addition to providing remote workout plans, he said, “We’re planning a virtual trivia night and the kids want to do a virtual team dinner. We’re trying to keep them engaged and to keep it fun.”

And when York County gains a green designation, “we’ll go to the beach for a workout and a dip into the (Atlantic) ocean to cap it off,” he said.

Those schools that do have pool time realize they are fortunate. Gordie Salls, the athletic director at Sanford, said the Sanford-Springvale YMCA will allow the Spartans, along with Massabesic, to swim there once York County gets a green designation. “They’ve been great making room for us,” he said.

Mt. Desert Island, which had over 50 students sign up for swimming, will start Monday with three different time slots each day at the local YMCA. “Swimming is big in our community and the Y has been excellent to work with,” said MDI Athletic Director Bunky Dow.

Swim teams also face some restrictions. With just three swimmers allowed per lane, they can only have 18 swimmers at a practice session. “Those schools that have bigger teams are looking for more pool time than normal,” said Greely Coach Rob Hale.

Greely has its own pool, but it only has five lanes, so Hale can only have 15 swimmers at each practice session. “We’re in the water,” said Hale. “So we’re not complaining.”

The biggest change in high school swimming this winter is that all meets will be held virtually.

Teams will swim in their own pools within 48 hours of each other. The meet must include at least two officials who will certify the results at the end. The “visiting” team must contact the “home” team within 24 hours with its results. Those results will be submitted to a Hy-Tek statistician who will post the meet results.

The virtual meets will not include any relay events. Schools can schedule up to six meets.

Most school officials are intrigued by the virtual meets, though nearly all say it will take some time to set them up logistically. And since the meets are virtual, teams will not be restricted to swim against schools in their nearby region. And they could extend the meet to more than just two teams.

“We could swim (against) anyone across the state,” said Hale. “We could swim 10 teams at a time, whoever wants to share that electronic file. We could even have a conference meet and a state meet.”

Hale mentioned swimming against perennial championship contender MDI. Dow, the MDI athletic director, said, “I’d be for that.”

Utterback, the AD at Brewer, is another big fan. “Let’s re-examine weekly dual matchups,” he said.”Let’s see more of the stronger programs matched up.”

INDOOR TRACK

Single-event specialty meets, to be held in gyms or indoor training facilities like the Topsham Dome, are being planned by coaches and athletic directors in the Penobscot Valley Conference and the Kennebec Valley Conference. The Western Maine Conference is looking at virtual meets for throwers and jumpers. Similar discussions are being held in the Southwestern Maine Activities Association, though nothing has been settled.

“We’re calling it Thursday Throws,” Brewer’s Utterback said. “I have a gym with a rubberized floor and throwing circles. We can bring the boys in for one session and then the girls. Fridays, we could do high jumps, rotate around to different gyms. Our target is to start January 27th, 28th, 29th.”

Utterback said he and the other Penobscot Valley Conference athletic directors are trying to find a venue, like an indoor dome facility, where they can hold middle distance races, with hopes it would be big enough to also accommodate some sprint and hurdle days.

“We have no answer right now for the pole vault, but we’re trying to be as creative as we can. Try to salvage as many events as we can,” Utterback said.

Schools that can hold in-person workouts right now are concentrating on conditioning. Several athletic directors have noted that it may be difficult to get much accomplished in the winter, other than to prepare for the outdoor season.

“We’re looking at indoor track as a springboard to the spring,” said Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens. “We’re getting in practice, conditioning, training, technical work. It will be a bridge of wellness activities to get ready for the spring.”

Lance Johnson, the athletic director at Portland High, said schools will continue to search for ways to hold meets, no matter the form.

“One thing I’ve learned is to plan for things that might happen and be ready to adapt,” said Johnson. “Right now, it doesn’t look like there will be a place to hold a track meet. But there are always ways if we want to be creative.”


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