BAR HARBOR — Tyler Frank still has the same feeling he gets every time September arrives.
True, the sports scene looks a bit different at Mount Desert Island High School, where Frank is beginning his seventh year as head coach of the boys’ soccer team. Between masked players and coaches, sanitization stations throughout athletic facilities and the absence of team huddles and high-fives, it’s a setting that would have been head-scratching to fans and coaches alike at this time last year.
For Frank, though, coaching soccer amidst a pandemic is no less thrilling than it would be any other year. Even with added precautions and a late start to the season, the rush he experiences as he roams the MDI practice fields is the same as it’s always been.
“You still get that chill that you do when you’re back into it for the season,” Frank said. “It’s definitely different, but that’s just the reality of the day. I think for all of us, we’re all just really excited to be back at practice and getting game-ready.”
That excitement is something that can be felt on fields and courses across Hancock County and the rest of the state as the first games and meets of the fall sports season approach. Things are hardly as they’ve been in falls gone by, but after nearly seven months away from one another, everyone is happy merely to be back with a chance to compete.
After two delays to a season that was originally slated to begin with the first practices Aug. 17, golf, cross-country, field hockey and soccer teams across the state were eligible to begin Monday with team tryouts. Practices are now underway at Ellsworth, Bucksport, MDI, George Stevens Academy and Deer Isle-Stonington with the first competitions eligible to be held as soon as Friday, Sept. 25.
With practices and competitions being held much later in the year than originally planned, athletes and coaches are rushing to make up for lost time. Whereas teams usually have three or four games or meets under their belts at this time of year, they instead find themselves still waiting to compete in a season unlike any other.
“It’s a little strange to be starting so late in the season,” said Ellsworth cross-country captain Calvin Nelson. “We’re definitely a bit behind because we usually start a few weeks before, but I think we’re taking it all in stride. It’s good to even be able to see each other and have fun together.”
With a shortened season that includes no playoffs for soccer and fewer meets for cross-country and golf, athletes won’t have quite as many playing opportunities as they did in seasons past. That makes every practice and every game this year worth just a little bit more.
“Knowing that we just have those few games, I think that’s just going to push us that harder,” said Kylie Robidoux a senior on the Ellsworth girls’ soccer team. “We’re always pushing and trying our hardest, and in a year like this, we want to give everything we can.”
Athletes and coaches have both faced learning curves adjusting to protocols aimed at stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus. From group clusters during water breaks to major bonding events such as team dinners and movie nights, many of the experiences that have brought teams together in the past are now off-limits.
Yet with each passing day, adjusting to the realities of playing sports during a pandemic gets a little bit easier. Players can frequently be heard giving one another spacing reminders during breaks in the action, and their coaches have seen them demonstrate a willingness to adapt in an environment that’s new to everyone.
“For us in cross-country, we’re breaking up into small groups and running with distance instead of running in packs and learning to draft off each other,” Ellsworth head coach Louie Luchini said. “It’s a totally different training atmosphere, but the kids know that this is what they have to do to be able to compete. Everybody’s been really good about adjusting and following the rules.”
Local athletes and coaches differed in how confident they would be that a 2020 season would take place. Although some expressed optimism that one would happen in some way, shape or form, others, such as Nelson, were pleasantly surprised when the Maine Principals’ Association received the green light to go forward with fall sports.
“I was convinced it wasn’t going to happen, and I would have understood that because you’re trying to keep everyone safe,” Nelson said. “I was very surprised when they said we were going to be able do it, but hey, I’m really glad that we do have it.”
Even as the season arrives, no one can be certain as to what the next month and half will look like. Schedules, roster decisions and policies on spectators are still being hashed out everywhere, and as has been universal in the era of COVID-19, there is no firm timetable and no real playbook.
The specifics, though, mean far less this year to a group of athletes and coaches that have been yearning for some semblance to normalcy. In a year that’s seen so many opportunities lost, this one, as alien as it may be, is there for the taking.
“I think we’re all just thankful to be out here and thankful for the people who worked so hard to make this possible,” Frank said. “There’s so much that had to happen just for us to be here, and we’re going to enjoy it and take everything day by day.”