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For safety, change of high school sports seasons discussed

Traditional Maine fall, spring sports may be switched to get teenagers back in game
By Mark Haskell | Jun 19, 2020
Artwork by: Holly Vanorse Spicer

Augusta — As the landscape constantly changes in the face of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic — and the distinct possibility schools continue remote learning in September — alternative solutions for high school sports to be safely played in the fall are being discussed.

David Utterback, athletic director at Brewer High School, submitted a proposal to the Maine Principals’ Association which outlines a plan to move sports with lower contact rate to the fall and those with higher contact rate to the spring to avoid potential spread of coronavirus.

The proposal is seen as an alternative to the traditional layout of high school sports if the Maine Department of Education makes the determination schools are not ready to fully reopen in the fall and remote learning must continue on some basis.

The idea, generally, is to push sports with less inherent social distancing built in down the road to give a chance for the pandemic to ease or a vaccine to be developed.

Under Utterback’s proposal, fall sports would include golf, baseball, softball, field hockey, cross country and tennis.

Traditionally, in Maine, baseball, softball and tennis are played in the spring and field hockey, golf and cross country in the fall.

Winter and spring sports would have staggered start times depending on the sport.

Basketball, ice hockey, skiing, swimming and indoor track and field would have a traditional late November start, while wrestling, competitive cheering and volleyball would begin in February.

Lacrosse and outdoor track and field would kick off the spring season in late March, while football and soccer would begin in late April.

“That is not something that the MPA has looked at at this point,” said MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham. “What we’re doing is working on and developing our summer guidelines that will go into August, with the hopes that we may be able to return with a full fall season.”

Burnham emphasized any flip-flopping of seasons “would be a one-year move and it would be only if we’re looking to be able to offer some activities, but not being able to return to full activity.”

“He has presented it to the baseball and softball committees,” said Burnham. “And they support the effort he put into that and think that it’s a good framework if this is something down the road we need to look at.”

Should Utterback’s proposal be approved by the MPA, with the shuffling, many three-sport athletes may no longer have that option, or be forced to pick up another sport.

Someone, for example, may golf in the fall and baseball in the spring. Under this proposal, that person would need to pick golf or baseball in the fall and a different sport in the spring, or not play sports in that season.

However, Burnham said, “That conversation is on hold until we hear that schools are not going to be back in the fall, or that they are on some sort of hybrid schedule, and that we aren’t going to be able to sponsor certain sports at a given time.”

He added that “dual-sport participation is not prohibited by our organization, it would be a local policy that doesn’t allow an athlete to participate in two sports in the same season.”

Most Midcoast athletic directors, like Medomak Valley’s Matt Lash are grateful for Utterback’s “out-of-the-box” thinking, but are quick to point out many questions remain.

"This is what we need at this time in many ways,” said Lash. “Anything that gets kids safely playing again. I would support this plan as a last resort if it did just that. As with any major change like this, it would present some challenges. My biggest concern would be if we had to shut down again this fall, there would be the potential for those spring sports losing out again. That would be a tough blow to those kids and coaches. There may be facility issues as well. Some schools may use the same field for soccer, football, and lacrosse. If you don't have turf and lights, that could be complicated.”

No schools in the Midcoast — from Waldoboro to Searsport — have turf fields at their schools. There is one turf field at Point Lookout in Northport, which schools have used in the past, but that facility is privately owned and the owners could opt not to continue to allow use to the public.

Oceanside and Belfast are the only fields in the Midcoast that have facility lights. Other schools are forced to rent portable lights for night games. Those fields are used primarily for football and soccer, though Oceanside has only occasional night soccer games at its football field.

“Our kids need sports,” said Mount View athletic director Tom Lynch. “My hope is we have fall sports as planned. That said, if the verdict is no traditional fall sports, then I would be in favor of flipping some seasons so as long as our students can participate this fall.”

“When it comes to the motion I know that there was a lot of hard work and time put into it by Dave Utterback,” said Searsport athletic director Chris Hart. “I would like to give our students a safe way to access athletic opportunities. No matter what the outcome is I know that both the MPA and [Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association] are trying to do what is in the best interest of each and every student."

Camden Hills athletic director Jeff Hart said his first hope “is that we can have a regular school year next year, including all the seasons as we now know them.”

“If that cannot happen, I am all for finding alternative ways to be able to have sports,” he said. “If this happens to be the best option, then I would be for it absolutely. There will need to be lots of discussion about numerous things, but it is better than not having sports at all.”

Hart said scheduling games, particularly in the spring, "would be really difficult to pull off."

"There could be cases where schools cannot schedule all of those sports on the same field,” said Jeff Hart. “For example, for us in the spring, we would need to have boys and girls soccer, football and boys and girls lacrosse all playing on one field."

Oceanside baseball coach Don Shields, who has “great respect for” Utterback, has “many concerns with the proposal.” But, “if approved by the MPA, I will be ready to coach my team.”

“If we play baseball and softball in the fall and the state sees another spike, then we get shut down for a second time and will go until 2022 without baseball and softball,” he said. “That to me is a tough gamble to take and not fair to those involved with those sports. I [also] have major concerns about football, something I don't coach. It is hard for me to understand how it is healthy to have young student-athletes play a football schedule in April and May, playoffs in June and then play another season with regular-season games in September and October, playoffs in November. That is 16 regular-season games, plus two playoffs in a seven-and-half-month period. The injury concern too me outweighs the gains.”

Belfast athletic director Terry Kenniston said, “I think anything we can do that will enhance the opportunities for kids to be able to participate is good.”

"The biggest issue we face is we don’t have that information from the state yet,” Kenniston said. “I think everything that David and people are looking at and talking about are so we can have potentially some type of alternative plan for the kids. But until the DOE or someone releases a plan as to what school is going to look like, they’re won't be athletics. If it’s modified school and you’ve got half the kids coming at one time and half the other and they’re wearing masks or shields, I’d imagine we’d have to do the same thing athletically.”

Kenniston, who has been a coach and/or school administrator 44 years, said “I don’t see full return in the fall.”

"I see a combination of remote and in-school sessions,” he said. “I know schools are measuring classrooms as we speak to see how many kids they can get in a classroom and be able to social distance.”

Burnham said the MPA’s own guidelines for resumption of activities likely are to be released next week.

A working draft of the Department of Education's framework for opening Maine schools in the fall can be viewed here.

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