Members of the MDI indoor track team, garbed in outdoor running gear, get ready for a distance run as part of an Eastern Maine Indoor Track League event Jan. 28 in Bar Harbor. Some “indoor” track events were forced outdoors last winter because of the pandemic. PHOTO COURTESY OF AARON LONG

2021 winter sports recap

BAR HARBOR — Before the local sports world became somewhat recognizable again, 2021 began as a year unlike any other. 

Whereas the turning of the calendar is usually met with optimism and feelings of new beginnings, the world was a much different place as 2020 turned to 2021. With a pandemic raging, Maine’s 2020-21 winter season had not even begun as the state rang in a new year. 

Once the winter campaign did begin, the scenes – none of which parents and fans got to see up close – looked very different. From masked players to empty gymnasiums to track meets in the snow to canceled pastimes, the images would have been shocking to someone time-traveling from as recently as 10 months earlier. 

Following a watered-down fall 2020 season, it was clear that Maine’s gymnasiums, field houses and pool decks would be anything but normal heading into the winter months. State guidelines were not friendly to the hopes of traditional gymnasium environments and championship events, and there were questions as to whether or not a season would be able to go forward at all as COVID-19 cases climbed. 

“When the season started, there was a real sense of, ‘Are we going to be able to do this or not?’” recalled Andy Pooler, head coach of the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team. “You could wake up one day, and everything would be different than the day before. Everything was always changing.” 

Although a winter sports season was ultimately offered, spectators were prohibited from attending in almost all circumstances and state guidelines prohibiting teams from playing teams beyond adjacent counties dashed hopes of state championship events. One sport, wrestling, could not be held competitively due to guidance prohibiting “high-risk” sports. 

Rules prohibiting spectators was a particularly tough blow to Maine high school basketball, home to some of the most raucous, soulful gyms around. Fans pack the seats to the rafters to watch sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, friends, neighbors and fellow community members, and the noise and energy are palpable. 

For players and coaches as well as the few administrators and media members in attendance last winter, the silence during games was jarring. Had fans been allowed, overtime showdowns such as the George Stevens Academy boys’ 37-35 pod title game win over Bucksport and the Mount Desert Island boys’ 75-71 win over Ellsworth would have made the bleachers shake. 

“That place would have been so loud [with fans in the gym],” Ellsworth’s Hunter Curtis recalled of his team’s Feb. 11 battle with MDI in Bar Harbor ahead of the two teams’ latest matchup earlier this month. “It was weird being in there and just having everything empty.” 

As basketball season concluded, a March/April intersession season began for volleyball, which, as an indoor sport, could not be held in fall 2020. Like basketball, volleyball teams played shortened schedules in empty gyms before competing in postseason pod tournaments. 

Swim meets were held virtually with teams swimming in their own pools and then exchanging results with one another over the following days. A similar protocol was in place for cheer, in which teams performed and filmed their own Northern Maine and state championship routines before sending in tapes of their performances to be judged. 

With the University of Maine’s New Balance Field House unavailable to high schools, indoor track events were held in scattered fashion across various gyms. In some instances, the lack of a proper venue forced distance-running “indoor” events to be held outside in the elements. 

“One of the beauties of distance running is that it can be done regardless of location, terrain and weather,” MDI head indoor track coach Aaron Long said of his team’s first meet in the snow. “Running on a couple inches of snow wasn’t ideal in terms of running fast times, but the experience was great, and the athletes had fun ‘breaking the ice’ on the season.” 

Such positive attitudes were important for coaches and athletes during a very trying winter campaign. It wasn’t one they’ll be wishing to repeat ever again, but if nothing else, the resilience and unusual experiences from last winter will make for some unparalleled stories. 

“We all wish we could be doing more, but they know this is the situation, and they’re happy to be able to do what they’re allowed to do,” said Ellsworth head indoor track coach Darren Richardson. “They’ve had a really good attitude about all of it, and that’s what matters the most.” 

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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