BAR HARBOR — A year of pandemic life hasn’t been easy on high schoolers. These days, Paige Anderson is doing what she can to keep her mind off the constant sense of doom and gloom.
Although Anderson, like much of Generation Z, is typically an active and savvy social media user, she’s tuned out the apps a bit more in recent months to avoid the distressing headlines and discussions. So when the Bucksport junior got an email from a reporter last Thursday morning mentioning the “great news” about wrestling, she wasn’t sure to what the message was alluding.
Unaware of any new developments, Anderson immediately reached out to her wrestling teammates and Bucksport’s athletic director, Aaron Ward, to see what she’d missed. What she found was some of the best news she’d ever received: High school wrestling was back.
High school athletes all throughout the state likely had similar reactions to last week’s news that two sports that could not be played in 2020-21 will be back next year. After an agonizing wait, wrestlers and football players can prepare for a new season without the uncertainties that have surrounded their sports over the past 14 months.
Tackle football and wrestling are set to return to Maine high schools next year after being sidelined in 2020-21. With the Maine Principals’ Association back in full control of all high school athletics for the first time since the novel coronavirus pandemic began, the governing body has reopened those sports — and all others — for full competition.
The announcement came last Wednesday, just over two days after the state’s community sports guidelines were removed from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development website. Spokeswoman Kate Foye confirmed to the Islander that those guidelines and all others related to COVID-19 had been retired.
Just 48 hours after those developments, the MPA Sports Medicine Committee met to discuss the statuses of football and wrestling. Then, last Wednesday afternoon, Executive Director Mike Burnham made official the words hundreds of Maine high school athletes had been waiting to hear.
“It is with great excitement that the Maine Principals’ Association announces a reopening of all interscholastic activities in Maine,” Burnham said. “We will continue to work with the Maine Department of Education, the Maine School Board and [Maine School Superintendents] Association and the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association to assist schools in developing their individual school plans to allow for a safe reopening plan for their athletes and school staff.”
As “high-risk” sports, football and wrestling could not be held in their traditional forms during the current academic year. The MPA had delayed both sports in hopes that restrictions laid out in the community sports guidelines might be eased, but no such changes materialized.
Initially, the MPA had approved plans for a 2020 high school football season at its Aug. 27 Interscholastic Management Committee meeting. Those plans were dashed just five days later after state agencies said the governing body’s plans to allow the sport were inconsistent with the community sports guidelines.
Prior to its cancellation, the 2020 season was set to be an important one for all three Hancock County football teams. Bucksport entered the year looking to defend its Class D North championship, and Ellsworth/Sumner (breaking in a new head coach) and Mount Desert Island (slated for its first season of eight-man ball) were hoping to kick off new eras.
With new freshman arriving and seniors departing, roster numbers at Maine high schools this fall will be different than they would have been during a 2020 season. Should some of those teams make classification changes, the Maine high school football landscape in 2021 could look vastly different than it would have been in 2020.
“My thought is there’s going to be a couple more teams that probably make the transition to eight-man football, so we’ll see how that impacts our schedule,” MDI head coach Mark Arnold said. “At the same time, who we play this fall doesn’t matter as much as us just getting that chance to play after missing a year.”
Unable to play the traditional form of the game, Maine high school football teams participated in modified 7-on-7 games in front of few or no spectators. The 7-on-7 code prohibits blocking and tackling, allows only passing plays and used a running clock for all four quarters.
Prior to last week’s news, the community sports guidelines had been the primary obstacle to high school football’s return in Maine. After football and wrestling had remained high-risk activities in the state’s March update to the guidelines, there were uncertainties about the sport’s status heading into the late spring and summer months.
“Even going into late spring here, we were unsure what Maine was thinking about in the fall for football,” Arnold said. “Those community sports guidelines were really what was holding it up because of how it placed football and wrestling in their own category, so that change is positive news and makes us feel strongly that football is a go for the fall.”
Whereas football players at least got to take the field against other teams for those 7-on-7 contests, wrestlers were limited to non-contact skills and conditioning exercises and intra-squad scrimmages. Although those opportunities did give wrestlers some chances to be together, such occasions were still far scarcer than they would have been in a traditional season.
“We were able to do some things, but it obviously wasn’t as much,” said Anderson, who had been especially looking forward to the season after recovering from a knee surgery that cut her sophomore year short. “Wrestling is something that brings us all together, so it was tough to not have meets and get together like we usually do.”
Even with restrictions rapidly loosening across the state, Anderson was caught off guard by the MPA’s announcement. The junior was concerned that wrestling season would be canceled once again in 2021-22, which made the latest news a pleasant surprise.
MDI Athletic Director Bunky Dow, whose return from an eight-day vacation came as the Sports Medicine Committee was meeting, said he also did not see the news coming. Yet with COVID-19 cases plummeting as more and more Mainers get vaccinated, the decision, he said, was a sensible one.
“Right now, we’re at the point where everyone is getting vaccinated, and even the students can get vaccinated,” Dow said. “We took some well thought out caution when we first started, but as we learn more as we go, I feel like we’re in a safe situation.”
The 2021-22 season, of course, is not necessarily the most pressing issue at the moment for most athletes, coaches and administrators. The spring postseason slate is just beginning for most spring sports, and high school students have plenty of year-end exams and projects to keep them busy over the next two weeks.
Soon enough, though, those in the local high school sports scene will be turning their attention to the year to come. Although the past year has taught the importance of taking nothing for granted, those who missed out can now spend less time worrying about restrictions and canceled seasons and more time focusing on their goals.