Ellsworth’s Hunter Curtis possesses the ball against Winslow’s Jason Reynolds during a boys’ basketball playoff game Feb. 14 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The upcoming basketball season will look different as coaches and athletes deal with mask mandates during competition, spectator bans and the likely cancellation of the state tournament in February. FILE PHOTO

Coaches, athletes brace for unusual winter sports season

ELLSWORTH — Hancock County just experienced the strangest high school sports season in recent memory. Now, things are about to get even weirder.

Although a framework has been set in place for a winter sports season, there are no concrete details just yet as to what kinds of games and meets will be taking place come January. After all, nothing can be etched in stone during a pandemic, especially one that’s worsening both nationally and statewide.

No, all that can be certain this winter is that a chaotic, unusual season lies ahead. With countable contests delayed until January, masks mandated during competition and the likely casualty of the acclaimed state basketball tournament, the upcoming campaign will require coaches and players alike to be even more flexible and resilient than ever.

“We know it’s not going to be what we’ve had in the past,” said Andy Pooler, head coach of the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team. “We still don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, which is kind of the way the world is with everything right now.”

The stage for a winter season was set Nov. 6 as state agencies, in coordination with the Maine Principals’ Association, announced a timeline for high school athletics to take place in the coming months. The decision came 10 days after the MPA elected to delay winter sports, which had been slated to begin Monday.

Ellsworth’s Lillian Frank competes in the 200-yard freestyle during a 2019 high school swim meet at the Down East Family YMCA. Changes to swim meets this year include the possibility of virtual competitions and a ban on relay races to keep swimmers from congregating near the podiums. FILE PHOTO

The current community sports guidelines separate winter athletic activities into six different tiers based on risk levels. Those tiers range from the lowest-risk activities at Level 1 (home conditioning and skill development) to the highest-risk activities at Level 6 (competition against teams from other states).

Under the guidelines, teams may begin Level 1 activities Dec. 7, Level 2 and Level 3 activities (practices and intra-squad scrimmages) Dec. 14 and Level 4 activities (games against regional opponents) Jan. 11. To date, future clearance has not been given for Level 5 (statewide) or Level 6 activities.

As was the case in the buildup to fall sports, though, those dates provide only a rough outline as to how high school sports might unfold this winter. With the state reaching record COVID-19 case numbers and the first potential games and meets still almost two months away, schools are a long way off from finalizing times and dates for competitions.

“I don’t feel we’re on any sort of schedule right now,” said Mount Desert Island head swim coach David Blaney. “There are no final dates nailed down or anything like that, so for me, it’s still a mindset of seeing what happens and hopefully getting into the pool when we can.”

If athletes and coaches are able to meet up for practices, scrimmages and games, they’ll do so wearing masks or face coverings at all times, even during competition. That mandate is in place after community leaders expressed concerns over differences in guidelines relating to in-class activities and community sports.

The ruling on masks represents a shift from the fall sports season, during which athletes were not required to wear masks or face coverings while competing. Although competing while masked is certainly an added challenge, it’s also something athletes are coming to accept as a reality this winter.

“I don’t think anyone is too happy about it, but that’s the way it is, and we have to do it,” said Hunter Curtis, a junior on the Ellsworth boys’ basketball team. “I’m going to get started on some workouts with masks on so that I can get used to it.”

Sports such as swimming and indoor track will face challenges related to the use of facilities. Local track teams compete at the University of Maine’s New Balance Fieldhouse, currently closed, and many swim teams compete at YMCA or other recreational facilities that must also accommodate other members.

“It’s been good for us because the [MDI YMCA] has been really willing to work with the program, but there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Blaney said. “In a normal year, I’ll have all 48 kids in the shallow end of the pool. That’s obviously not something that can happen this year.”

Members of the Bucksport cheer team perform their routine during the Maine Cheer Coaches Association Showcase on Jan. 4 at Ellsworth High School. Cheer teams will be unable to perform verbal cheers and pyramids this season. FILE PHOTO

No sport finds itself in a worse position than wrestling, the lone “high-risk” winter activity under community sports guidelines and the only winter sport not to be cleared for competition. Restricted to individual workouts and physically distanced team activities, local wrestlers know their sport is in a uniquely disadvantageous position.

“It’s not a nice feeling; it’s like something has been ripped away from you,” said Ellsworth wrestling’s Noah Hughes. “For a lot of us seniors, we were holding out hope that we could have a season and put our names on the banner. It’s been very tough.”

Should competitions take place this winter, they will occur without spectators in the bleachers. That would provide for significantly less joyous atmospheres at basketball games, swim competitions and cheer meets, all of which are known for raucous crowd environments.

Most surreal, perhaps, is the near-certain loss of the high school basketball tournament in February. As a Level 5 event under the current community sports guidelines, the tourney, a rite of passage that brings together communities of all kinds over a two-week period that captivates the entire state, would be unable to go forward.

“Playing in that tournament is always the high point of the season,” Curtis said. “It’s really special, and you always look forward to it. … It’s hard to think that we won’t get it, but we have to think positive and be ready prove ourselves if we do get to play some games.”

Individual sports will face a slew of competition-specific changes as well. Basketball teams will not be allowed to leave the gym during halftime; swim meets, Blaney said, might be held virtually between schools; cheer squads will be prohibited from performing verbal cheers and forming pyramids.

Yet local players and coaches are willing to live with the changes if doing so allows winter athletics to be held in some form. Whether they’re limited to practices or ultimately allowed to compete against other teams, those on the high school sports circuit will welcome the chance to make whatever they can of a potential season.

“If we have to, we can practice in my driveway,” Pooler said. “Whatever they’ll let us do, we’ll do it — anything to make it feel some type of normal.”

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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