Going into this season, Casey Cormier knew the way he and his Maranacook boys’ basketball teammates like to play – up-tempo, fast-paced, high-scoring.

But he also knew the rules for basketball during the coronavirus pandemic: Face masks on at all times, on and off the court. And he wondered how the two could mix.

“When I first came in, I was thinking ‘We like to run, (and) it’s going to be tough running with the masks on. It’s going to be hard to breathe,’ and everything,” the senior guard said. “But now … it’s almost like there’s no difference to it. We’re still running the floor, we’re still playing Maranacook-style basketball.”

Even for teams that play a similar style, the look is wildly different. Maine is one of 19 states mandating that masks must be worn during competition, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Ten of those states have begun the basketball season.

Teams in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties – those designated as “green” in the state’s color-coded health advisory for schools – have been playing games since Jan. 11. By February, they’ll be joined by teams in four “yellow” counties in southern Maine after the Maine Principals’ Association announced last week that the color-coded advisory no longer applies to after-school activities like sports.

High school basketball in 2021 means wearing masks from entering the gym until leaving, and as one would expect, there are challenges to wearing it during strenuous competition. For some, it’s harder to breathe. For some, it’s harder to focus.

For all, it’s been an adjustment, one they know they have to make in order to have a season.

Bodhi Littlefield, a senior guard on the Winslow girls’ team, made six 3-pointers and scored 22 points in a loss to Erskine on Tuesday. After the game, she said she was “dying a bit.”

“When you get sweaty and hot, the mask tends to squish into your face and squeeze your face, so I’m catching myself pulling it out and trying to get some fresh air in there,” she said. “But I think it’s just, you’ve got to get used to it. I’m still not used to it.”

Added Winthrop senior forward Noah Grube: “To start off, it was really tough. Coming in the gym the first couple of practices, you were really breathing after you do a couple of slides. Five minutes in, you’re already out of breath,” he said. “But honestly, at this point, it’s gotten a little bit easier.”

Coaches, too, have had to adjust.

Maine Central Institute girls’ basketball players check out the action during a Jan. 18 game at Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Levi Ladd, the girls’ basketball coach at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, said he’s been extra cognizant of giving players more rest during games as they continue to adjust to playing in masks.

“Everybody seems to be adjusting accordingly, but it’s really difficult to be properly conditioned and the masks have a factor that way,” he said. “We’ve got some players who just need a break. We’ve got backup masks, too. When they get in your mouth and get wet, you have to rotate them through sometimes. It’s a challenge. Everybody’s going through it.”

In Aroostook County, several teams have had practice time and games disrupted because COVID-19 outbreaks caused schools to shift to fully remote learning. Easton boys’ basketball coach Brad Trask said his Class D team was “lucky enough to have that whole first month of conditioning, where a lot of schools weren’t,” which allowed his team to adjust to wearing a mask.

Still, “I do feel I’m definitely subbing out kids more, just so the guys can get off the court, take the mask off and get a drink. That’s due to the masks. It’s just tougher to breathe through them,” Trask said. “Guys that could normally go a six-minute stretch, they’re needing a break at four-and-a-half, five minutes.”

Added Skowhegan girls’ basketball coach Mike LeBlanc, who is quarantining and was unable coach the team Friday night: “They don’t seem to complain. I know it takes a little bit out of you. I know I’m a little bit more tired at the end of the day with wearing them all day. I think they’re happy to do what they have to do to play.”

Bob Witts, the girls’ basketball coach at Erskine Academy in South China, said players have to adjust if they want to play.

We’re not using it as an excuse,” he said. “We’ve got to wear it, we’re going to wear it, and we’re going to play through. And they’ve done a great job.”

That adjustment hasn’t been easy. Some chose not to play under the new rules. Witts’ team, for example, had five players sit out the season. Trask said Easton had “kids who decided not to play because they didn’t want to wear a mask.”

The ones who did sign up found it difficult initially to get used to shooting, passing, defending and running up and down the court with the masks on.

“There was definitely a time at the beginning of the year where we were struggling a little bit,” said Cormier, the Maranacook basketball player. “(We were) taking a lot of breaks, and it was rough.”

By the time the season started, many players had acclimated.

Maranacook’s Tim Worster, left, and Erskine’s Nick Barber battle for a rebound during a Jan. 12 game in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“(One day) I completely forgot to change my mask at halftime,” Skowhegan junior Jaycie Christopher said after Monday’s game against Maine Central Institute. “I think it’s been fine. We’ve all been pretty good with it so far. It’s definitely different. At this point, we’ve been doing it since the middle of December.”

Camden Hills girls’ basketball coach Kim Kuhn said her 20-player group has “quite frankly been awesome,” about properly adhering to the rule.

“I haven’t had to tell even one kid to get the mask up over their nose,” Kuhn said. “I haven’t had one issue, none at all.”

During games, officials have also been on the lookout for a player who has a mask riding low, or a coach who pulls the mask down to shout instructions, said Camden Hills boys’ coach Jon Moro.

“The only hiccups we saw (in a season opener against Boothbay), the officials were really on it,” Moro said. “They would nicely blow the whistle and remind you to keep your masks up. The coaches, too. When you’re yelling, you want to pull your mask down, and the officials have done a good job maintaining that standard.”

The Caribou boys’ basketball team – the two-time defending Class B state champion – has yet to play a game, but Coach Kyle Corrigan said he believes his players will adapt, in part, because they’ve become so used to wearing a mask during the school day.

“It’s almost become a bit of a trend. You’ll hear kids say, ‘Oh, yeah, I got a couple new masks today,'” Corrigan said. “It’s almost like part of an outfit, like you’d wear a hat. They have multiple masks to match the outfit.

“And I will say, none of our guys have complained at all in practice.”

Some players admit, though, that the masks are a hindrance. Grube, a senior on the Winthrop boys’ basketball team, said the effect of a mask on breathing is the biggest challenge.

Skowhegan’s Reese Danforth, left, adjusts her mask during a Jan. 18 game against Maine Central Institute in Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“It’s still definitely tougher to breathe,” he said. “Sometimes, you’re just inhaling the mask.”

Added Hall-Dale sophomore guard Amanda Trepanier: I knew it may be a challenge, and it was definitely something we haven’t dealt with before. But I think we’re all really getting used to it. … Everybody’s on the same page, there’s really no way around it.”

Forest Hills senior Parker Desjardins said he experimented with a few different types before finding the mask he liked best. So far it hasn’t slowed him down. Desjardins scored 42 points in the season opener against Madison, 45 points in a game against Valley, and 43 points in the Tigers’ win over Greenville on Thursday.

“I tried a few different masks and found the disposable paper ones were the easiest to breathe in,” Desjardins said. “Once the game starts and I get into the zone, I don’t even notice the mask. Even in practice, it’s hardly even noticeable. I am just glad that given the circumstances, we are able to play.”

They’re not comfortable, but after a summer and fall of athletes wondering if they would have a chance to play at all this winter, the mask stipulation is just a hurdle they are more than eager to clear.

“At first, before the season started, I was like ‘There’s no way we’re all going to be able to wear masks,'” said Gabby Green, a senior center for the Maranacook girls. “It started to get a little easier, and I was like, ‘If this is what it’s going to take to play basketball … whatever it takes, me and my team will do it.'”

Portland Press Herald staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.


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