BAR HARBOR — For years, sports on Mount Desert Island have been a given. Then, in 2020, everything changed.
An entire season canceled; delays after delays to fall and winter practices and competitions; masked coaches, spectators (if allowed) and, in some, cases, athletes. Those images and many more told the story of a year with no precedent on the local sports circuit.
No, nothing has been the same since the novel coronavirus pandemic arrived in March and brought sports to a screeching halt locally and all over the world. With stringent protocols in place on and off the fields, courts, tracks and mats, opportunities to compete have been scarce — if they’ve been available at all.
“Things have been hard for sports this year because of all the uncertainty that you see everywhere,” said Brent Barker, head coach of the MDI girls’ basketball team. “You’ve got to protect yourself and protect the kids, and it’s hard to even know where to start.”
Locally, the first cancellations came down March 12, the day Maine announced its first presumptive positive case of COVID-19. Over the next 48 hours, organizers of college tournaments, road races, youth championships and even the Great Harbor Shootout had pulled the plug on their respective events.
The Maine Principals’ Association, though, initially decided to postpone the start of spring practices from March 30 to April 27 rather than cancel the season altogether. Yet on April 8, the MPA came forth with the announcement that many feared would come: Spring sports were a no-go.
The cancellation of the spring season was one of just many lost rites of passage during a very difficult period locally and worldwide. With no athletic events to which it could turn, the MDI sports community lost out on a needed distraction during a time of isolation.
“You look forward to things like sporting events because they help you heal a little bit,” MDI head baseball coach Andy Pooler told the Islander in April. “It’s hard because we don’t have them in a time where we need them to bring people together.”
Some local youth programs, such as Acadian Youth Sports and Acadia Fire Soccer Academy, resumed activities over the summer. But restrictions remained on workouts and activities at the high school level ahead of the new academic year.
With the arrival of the late-summer months, conversations began swirling as to the possibility of a fall 2020 season. After two months of back-and-forth between the MPA and state agencies and the postponement of the initial Aug. 17 start date for practices, the former announced Aug. 27 that it would be offering all fall activities.
Five days later, though, Department of Health and Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Governor Janet Mills wrote a letter to the MPA disapproving of the governing body’s plans for the fall season. In response, the MPA delayed the start of fall practices and removed traditional football and indoor volleyball from its list of offerings.
The resulting fall sports season was unrecognizable from those of years gone by. Football (7-on-7 format) and volleyball (played outdoors with players wearing masks) took on altered forms; the soccer playoffs and state championship cross-country meet were canceled; school districts were forced to postpone or cancel competitions as a result of potential COVID-19 exposure.
“I think the biggest thing we had to do in the fall was just be flexible,” MDI Athletic Director Bunky Dow told The American last month. “There was just so much changing every day, and you had to be willing to roll with it. Our kids and our coaches did a great job of that.”
Even if the winter sports season is allowed to continue, there will be more questions than answers as a new year begins. Athletes and coaches will be gathering in indoor settings that increase the risk of transmission, and they’ll be doing so at a time when the state’s seven-day average of new daily cases is more than 10 times what it was when the fall season began.
If 2020 has taught the world anything, it’s been resilience in the face of unprecedented developments. The flipping of the calendar itself won’t alleviate the challenges facing local athletics, but even if there are more restrictions and guidelines, players, coaches, fans, administrators and other sports aficionados will keep the faith and do whatever they can to get as close to the action as possible.
“It’s a tough place to be because you don’t know when it’s going to end,” Barker said. “The thing we’ve got to do is be prepared for when they tell us it’s good to go, but for the time being, we’ve got to keep fighting this virus and be diligent. We can’t let our guards down now.”