Mount Desert Island’s Hunter Gray carries the ball during a 2019 high school football game against Waterville at Waterville High School. PHOTO COURTESY OF BARRY GUTRADT

Mid-2021 emerges as last hope for high school football season

MDI’s Eric Rodriguez looks to down Bucksport’s Owen Gaudreau during a 7-on-7 high school football game Oct. 23 at Bucksport High School. PHOTO COURTESY OF RICK MCHALE

BAR HARBOR — The window is getting tight, but there’s hope yet for high school football to be played in Maine this sports season.
Following the Maine Principals’ Association’s most recent Interscholastic Management Committee meeting Nov. 19, a mid-2021 campaign has emerged as the governing body’s tentative plan to offer the sport during the current academic year. The decision comes after the cancellation of the fall 2020 season and the MPA’s recent determination that the sport could not be played during the late winter or early spring.
That means optimism is still alive for coaches and athletes looking to return to the gridiron. There are logistics to sort out and pandemic-related concerns to address if contests under the Friday night lights are to become a reality in the late spring and early summer.
It’s been more than a full year now since traditional high school football has been played in the state of Maine. Play this fall was restricted to the non-contact 7-on-7 format, in which kickoffs, running plays and blitzes are prohibited.
“I think we got a lot out of what we did in the fall,” Mount Desert Island head coach Mark Arnold said. “It was good for the kids to be able to get out and get on the field in some way after not being able to work out during the summer, and we were able to do some team bonding activities as well.”
Upon announcing the cancellation of the fall football and volleyball seasons, the MPA informed member schools that it would be working to provide a season for those sports in the late-winter or early-spring months. Yet while volleyball is set for a late-February start date, high school and MPA administrators have deemed an outdoor sport to be unfeasible during one of Maine’s coldest, wettest times of year.
“The biggest thing to think about with football is when our fields are going to be able to be ready for play and have meaningful games and whatnot,” Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost said. “In Maine, you’re not going to see the fields harden up and be ready for football until early May or mid-May.”
In the Nov. 19 meeting, the MPA cited that May time frame as the latest target date to begin a potential football season. Depending on how many games were to be played, the season would conclude in early or mid-July.
That would leave very little time between the conclusion of a spring or summer season and the beginning of a potential fall 2021 season. MDI Athletic Director Bunky Dow told the Islander last week that such a short offseason would present serious safety concerns. Head football coach Mark Arnold agreed.
“A football season at the high school level is pretty hard on a player’s body,” Arnold said. “I would be very concerned about the health of a football program that asks its players to play two football seasons over such a short amount of time.”
“The other thing you have to worry about is the reconditioning of your equipment, your helmet and shoulder pads,” Dow added. “Those things have to be reconditioned every season, so if you finish up in July, and you’re expecting to start again in September, are the companies going to have enough time to recondition that equipment and give their approval? That’s another logistic I don’t think a lot of people really think of.”
A football season beginning in May would also present a potential conflict between football and spring sports, the latter of which were already denied a season a year ago. Spring sports are currently scheduled to begin March 29 with the first practices and conclude June 12 with the last countable contests.
Should such a conflict arise, it would be unwelcome news for athletes who participate in multiple sports. Many of MDI’s players compete in other activities during the spring, and football taking place simultaneously with the spring season — even for a short period of time — could force athletes to choose between activities.
“The multi-sport model has always been something we’ve emphasized here at MDI because every sport has something that can contribute on some way to the others,” Arnold said. “It’s a tough spot to be in because you really have to weigh how much you disrupt or jeopardize.”
Football remains a high-risk activity under the state’s guidelines on community sports. That classification would likely need to change before a contact football season can take place in any capacity.
No matter where the state stands in regard to the pandemic several months from now, there will be challenges if a high school football season is to begin so late on the academic calendar. After a fall in which football could only be played in a modified format, any opportunity to play the contact form of the game is one players and coaches hope comes to fruition.
“I just hope and pray they get to participate in something,” Arnold said. “The kids who came out for us this fall built great friendships and a team culture, and we really want for them to carry that into a [traditional] season and give our seniors that last chance to play.”

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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