BAR HARBOR — Athletes at Mount Desert Island High School and other schools statewide have just experienced the strangest sports season in recent memory. Now, things are about to get even weirder.
Although a framework has been set in place for a winter sports season, there are no concrete details just yet as to what kinds of games and meets will be taking place come January. After all, nothing can be etched in stone during a pandemic, especially one that’s worsening both nationally and statewide.
All that can be certain this winter is that a chaotic, unusual season lies ahead. With countable contests delayed until January, masks mandated during competition and the likely casualty of the acclaimed state basketball tournament, the upcoming campaign will require coaches and players alike to be more flexible and resilient than ever.
“We know it’s not going to be what we’ve had in the past,” said Ellsworth head girls’ basketball coach Andy Pooler, also head coach of the MDI baseball team. “We still don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, which is kind of the way the world is with everything right now.”
The stage for a winter season was set Nov. 6 as state agencies, in coordination with the Maine Principals’ Association, announced a timeline for the high school athletics to take place in the coming months. The decision came 10 days after the MPA elected to the delay winter sports, which had been scheduled to begin Monday.
The current guidelines separate winter athletic activities into six different tiers based on risk levels. Those tiers range from the lowest-risk activities at Level 1 (home conditioning and skill development) to the highest-risk activities at Level 6 (competition against teams from other states).
Under the guidance, teams may begin Level 1 activities Dec. 7, Level 2 activities (practices and intra-squad scrimmages) Dec. 14 and Level 4 activities (games against regional opponents) Jan. 11. To date, no clearance has been given for Level 5 (statewide) or Level 6 competition.
As was the case in the buildup to fall sports, though, those dates provide only a rough outline as to how high school sports might unfold this winter. With the state reaching record COVID-19 case numbers and the first potential games and meets still almost two months away, schools are long ways off from finalizing times and dates of competitions.
“I don’t feel we’re on any sort of schedule right now,” said MDI head swim coach David Blaney. “There are no final dates nailed down or anything like that, so for me, it’s still a mindset of seeing what happens and hopefully getting into the pool when we can.”
If athletes and coaches are able to meet up for practices, scrimmages and games, they’ll do so while wearing masks or face coverings at all times, even during competition. That mandate is in place after community leaders expressed concerns over differences in guidelines relating to in-class activities and community sports.
The ruling on masks marks a shift from the fall sports season, during which athletes were not required to wear masks or face coverings while competing. Although competing while masked is certainly an added challenge, it’s also something they’re coming to accept as a reality this winter.
“I don’t think anyone is too happy about it, but that’s the way it is, and we have to do it,” said Hunter Curtis, a junior on the Ellsworth boys’ basketball team. “I’m going to get started on some workouts with masks on so that I can get used to it.”
Sports such as swimming and indoor track will face challenges related to the use of facilities. Local track teams compete at the University of Maine’s New Balance Fieldhouse, currently closed, and many swim teams compete at YMCA or other recreational facilities that must also accommodate other members.
“It’s been good for us because the [MDI YMCA] has been really willing to work with the program, but there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Blaney said. “In a normal year, I’ll have all 48 kids in the shallow end of the pool. That’s obviously not something that can happen this year.”
No sport finds itself in a worse position than wrestling, the lone “high-risk” winter activity under community sports guidelines and the lone winter sport not to be cleared for competition. Restricted to individual workouts and physically-distanced team activities, local wrestlers know their sport is in a uniquely disadvantageous position.
“It’s not a nice feeling; it’s like something has been ripped away from you,” said Ellsworth wrestling’s Noah Hughes. “For a lot of us seniors, we were holding out hope that we could have a season and put our names on the banner. It’s been very tough.”
Should competitions take place this winter, they will occur without spectators in the bleachers. That would provide for significantly less joyous atmospheres at basketball games, swim competitions and cheer meets, all of which are known for raucous crowd environments.
Most surreal, perhaps, is the near-certain loss of the state’s famed high school basketball tournament in February. Under the current guidelines, the tourney, a Level 5 event and a rite of passage that brings together communities of all kinds over a two-week period that captivates the entire state, would be unable to go forward.
“Playing in that tournament is always the high point of the season,” Curtis said. “It’s really special, and you always look forward to it. … It’s hard to think that we won’t get it, but we have to think positive and be ready prove ourselves if we do get to play some games.”
Individual sports will face individual changes during competition as well. Basketball teams will not be allowed to leave the gym during halftime; swim meets, Blaney said, might be held virtually between schools; cheer teams will be prohibited from performing verbal cheers and forming pyramids.
Players and coaches, though, are willing to live with the changes if doing so allows winter athletics to be held in some form this year. Whether they’re limited to practices or ultimately allowed to compete against other teams, those on the high school sports circuit will welcome the chance to make whatever they can of the winter season.
“If we have to, we can practice in my driveway,” Pooler said. “Whatever they’ll let us do, we’ll do it — anything to make it feel some type of normal.”