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High school sports

If pandemic conditions allow, Windjammers prepared for winter action

Basketball has regional play, skiing state-wide, swimming virtual, ice hockey intrasquad, wrestling wait-and-see mode
By Ken Waltz | Dec 31, 2020
Courtesy of: Camden Hills Regional High School

Rockport — Just a few months after a handful of its programs were unable to participate in interscholastic competition due to COVID-19, Camden Hills Regional High School student-athletes hope, at this point and acutely aware of the daily changes created by the pandemic, to compete in winter sports, albeit, in some cases, in modified ways.

In the fall, Five Town Community School District officials opted not to allow three high school sports — soccer, field hockey and football, which were deemed "moderate" or "high" risk — to participate in interscholastic activities to avoid student-athletes, who would have had close contact with those from other schools, being exposed to the virus and possibly introducing it to the school environment. That meant strictly intrasquad competition for those programs and athletes.

It was paramount, district officials stated at the time, to maintain the highest safety protocols and not put student-athletes in environments that allowed unnecessary exposure and potentially jeopardize in-school learning. Outside exposure could have introduced the virus to other students and faculty and, ultimately, forced remote learning, something district officials wanted to avoid, if possible.

The district allowed cross country and golf, which were deemed "low" risk and had workable ways to socially distance and to compete safely, to continue, again, in some cases, in modified ways. Golf and cross country competed in shortened regional schedules. Golf ultimately held a state event, while cross country was able to hold league championships before spikes in COVID and, subsequently, changes in county color designations caused the state meet to be canceled.

Fast forward several weeks and, while the pandemic continues to flare, the Maine Principals' Association, which governs member schools' varsity athletic teams, has decided to move forward with a modified winter season.

All winter sports could begin individual workouts earlier in December, however, the MPA pushed the start of team-oriented practices from mid-December to Monday, Jan. 4. The first official date for winter interscholastic competition for "low"-risk sports such as skiing and swimming and "moderate"-risk sports such ice hockey and basketball will be on Monday, Jan. 11. However, wrestling is deemed "high"-risk and will not start competition until late February.

Again, competition for most will be regionalized and, for swimming, will be virtual. For ice hockey, it will be a season of intrasquad competition because there are no available opponents within the regionalized restrictions.

Additionally, some ice rinks are unavailable to host games.

That also is true, at this point, for colleges that traditionally host high school indoor track meets. Thus, the independent track athletes at Camden Hills may have to train on their own this winter.

Due to COVID-19, there have been many modifications and safety protocols put in place for high school winter sports, including no spectators at indoor events, physical distancing, indoor gathering limits and, of course, face coverings for all, including the competing student-athletes. Those face masks will be required at all times, except for swimmers in the pool.

"We are participating within all of the guidelines," said Camden Hills athletic director Jeff Hart. "Lower-risk sports are skiing and swimming, so they will be able to travel anywhere in the state, although swimming will do all their meets virtually."

In virtual swim meets, it is expected competing teams will hold events in their own pools and compare times for individual places and team scores.

Hart said "moderate"-risk sports are basketball and hockey. Basketball will play a regional schedule. "There are no other hockey schools in Knox, Lincoln or Waldo counties, so [the Windjammers] will have intrasquad practices and games."

He said wrestling is a higher-risk sport, so the mat athletes are not able to participate until — "hopefully" — later in the winter. "We are waiting on more information from the MPA on that," Hart said.

Of course, much can change quickly if pandemic conditions worsen and force the state's education department to alter county designations from "green" to "yellow" or even "red." Changes in county distinctions significantly alter if high school athletic events will or can be played.

In the meantime, Windjammer coaches and student-athletes are back in the game, for now, preparing for whatever these uncertain pandemic times allow.

"We are doing skills and drills prepping for a Jan. 4 start," said Windjammer boys basketball coach Jon Moro. "The guys are excited to be back in the gym and adapting to wearing masks. We are maximizing the time we have together, building skills and getting into shape. Our gym has been cut in half due to an enlarged lunch area, so coaches are planning practices with limited space and only three hoops. We are optimistic that we can jump into playing games soon, but in the back of our mind is the real possibility that it could be shut down at any time. Seize the day is one of our themes. Really that’s all we have. This day. This practice. This moment."

Windjammer Alpine ski coach Barry King said his squads simply are happy to have some sort of a season.

He said Camden Hills has four races scheduled before the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship meet the first week of March. The team has yet to schedule its annual home meet at the Camden Snow Bowl.

King said the postseason meets, including the state championships, have been canceled this winter, ""which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand the state championships are where we get to go up against the best of the best in high school skiing in the state. The benefit is that our racing season will be a couple weeks longer than [it] normally would be. We will get a lot more training and skill development in this season. That is huge.

"Ski season is always too short for my appetite. This could prove to be a pivotal skill acquisition season for many athletes. If the practices we held over the holiday break are any indicator the Alpine athletes are chomping at the bit to build their skills. The team energy is very positive so far. The senior men — Emerson Brott, Devon Smith and Rhys White — are working so hard and setting such a positive tone for the rest of the team. I think they recognize this is their 'last hurrah' and they are going for it. The women are taking their training up a notch as well. We have an incoming group of freshmen women who were last year's [state] middle school champions. They are putting the heat on the other women to work hard."

The coach added, "At the end of the day, this team is about having fun. Hard work in challenging conditions, and fun, are not mutually exclusive. If we wish anything for our athletes, and what Alpine skiing teaches so well, it is learning to be mindful of everything going on around and within yourself. It is about learning to remain focused in the moment. It is learning about how to cheer each other on and hope for the best for each other. High school Alpine skiing is unique in that we score points and win as a team, not as individuals. The better we all ski and the more tightly we finish in a pack the better our chances of scoring well. Encouraging each other, helping each other out at the start, cow bells and cheering at the finish, tuning equipment together before each race, long bus rides across the state … all of these elements build a beautiful camaraderie.

"Alpine skiing is an incredibly complicated sport. Few athletes have to put together so many variables in any given moment. Snow conditions, weather conditions, course conditions (all of which are highly variable even within the same race). No two runs on the same course are ever the same. Alpine skiing combines incredible body and mind awareness, core strength, fine and gross motor skills, phenomenal balance, cardio resilience, technical and tactical decisions, and focus in the moment, all of which is happening at speeds up to 40 mph, even in high school skiing. Now let's throw in the equipment which is a major financial commitment and has to be able to support the skills acquisition goals we set for each individual athlete."

King said his program, any school sports program, cannot be successful without the support of parents. "This season, in particular, the parents know their athletes are up against some extraordinary circumstances. We couldn't ask for a team of more supportive parents. Jeff Hart, the high school AD, has provided solid leadership in a time when we all have questions that can't be answered."

He said the Snow Bowl administration also is doing a wonderful job of creating hill space for the race programs.

"Every outdoor winter activity is in huge demand right now," he said. "Take a look at all the hiking trail access points on any weekend day. Beth Ward, Holly Anderson and the Town of Camden are doing everything possible to provide for the surging demand for outdoor activities. The Snow Bowl is not your typical parks and recreation venue. It has to pay for itself at the end of the day while providing an outlet for a lot of pent up energy. I am so grateful that we live in a community with access to such a unique facility."

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