ELLSWORTH — Leah Stevens knows this feeling all too well.
Stevens, a two-sport athlete at the college level, first experienced it back in March as a junior at the University of Maine at Farmington. As the novel coronavirus pandemic led to cancellations across the board from the youth sports ranks all the way to the college and professional levels, the UMaine-Farmington softball season was one of the many to be lost.
On Monday, that feeling of disappointment set in for Stevens yet again as the North Atlantic Conference announced the cancellation of all conference games for the fall 2020 season. In response, UMaine-Farmington moved to cancel all fall 2020 athletic events, a decision that ended Stevens’ women’s soccer season before it could even begin.
“For me, it definitely feels like, ‘Wow, it’s happening all over again,’” said Stevens, a 2017 graduate of Ellsworth High School. “It’s kind of a surreal thing. I never thought we would all be in the position we’re in now.”
Indeed, the sports scene in the latter half of July is in an eerily similar place to where it was when the pandemic began wiping out entire seasons in March. Although fans of youth, high school and professional sports are still holding out hope that games, meets and matches will return, many college athletes from Hancock County and beyond already know they won’t be returning to action this fall.
A month ago, Bowdoin College made national news when it canceled all sporting events for the remainder of the calendar year. The move made Bowdoin the first New England Small College and Athletic Conference (NESCAC) school to nix the fall sports season in its entirety.
Bowdoin’s cancellation began a domino effect among New England schools. After the NESCAC canceled its season July 10, the University of Maine, the University of New England, Husson University and Maine Maritime Academy were quick to follow last week. Monday’s NAC announcement also ended conference play for Thomas College and UMaine-Presque Isle, though both schools still intend to play nonconference schedules.
Colby’s cancellation was heartbreaking news for Javon Williams, a 2019 Ellsworth High School graduate who was set to see his first game action after redshirting last season. Williams had spent nearly a year recovering from an Achilles injury suffered early in camp last season, and 2020 was set to be his comeback campaign.
“I was really ready for this because I didn’t get that full taste of college football last year,” Williams said. “It’s been a while since I had a full, healthy season, and this was my chance to get back out there. We understand why [the season was canceled], but we’re still pretty frustrated.”
At MMA, the cancellation deprived Colby Clarke, another 2017 graduate of Ellsworth High School, of a 2020 season that had a chance to be a special one. Clarke, a senior midfielder, was likely to be a captain for an MMA team that went 13-4-1 last year and had high hopes again as it prepared for a new season.
As was the case in the spring, players who have lost a fall sports season will not lose their unused year of eligibility. Yet while some players, such as Stevens, were already planning to return to school for a fifth year prior to the pandemic, others, such as Clarke, have a decision to make.
“I’ve been putting a lot of thought into whether I’m going to come back, go to another school and pursue a different degree or take a job offer after I graduate,” Clarke said. “The NCAA also said they might look at a spring season, so I kind of have to wait and see how it goes.”
At some schools, the cancellations deprived Hancock County teammates of a season together. Such was the case at UMaine-Farmington, where Stevens is part of a local trio that includes fellow 2017 Ellsworth graduate Callie Hammer and 2018 Mount Desert Island graduate Adriana Novella.
“It’s disappointing that we won’t get to play together this year,” Stevens said. “We’re really close, and when we’re on the field together, that translates. We connect really well with each other.”
There might, of course, be further cancellations and postponements in the pipeline. Resuming competitions that often require physical contact and interstate travel will remain difficult throughout the pandemic, and athletics can only be part of the equation if students are on campus.
Williams will be pushing himself in hopes of an even better return next year. Stevens, who says she wants to coach after college, will turn her attention toward a 2021 softball season and her fifth year next year. Clarke will continue to train in hopes that a potential spring season gives him one last chance with his MMA teammates.
“It’s obviously not ideal, but that’s life,” Clarke said. “You have to move on and make the most of it.”
UMaine-Machias suspends athletic program indefinitely
The University of Maine at Machias announced Tuesday that it is suspending its athletic program effective immediately.
The university cited budget constraints related to COVID-19 for the decision, which affects two full-time employees, four part-time coaches and 73 student-athletes. Those affected were informed of the school’s decision prior to the public announcement.
“This decision was made after an in-depth review of the athletics program, during which we explored a number of options for reducing costs without suspending operations,” said Head of Campus Dan Qualls. “It became clear that, under the constraints of our current budget and especially in light of the additional costs and safety concerns associated with the pandemic, we would not be able to provide the necessary facilities, equipment and resources for a safe and competitive environment for our student-athletes.”
UMaine-Machias competes in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, a 77-member small-college organization that also includes Central Maine Community College, UMaine-Augusta and UMaine-Fort Kent. The school’s sports offerings included men’s and women’s soccer and basketball as well as women’s volleyball.
UMaine-Machias will honor all scholarships through the conclusion of the 2023-24 academic year. The school will look to expand non-varsity athletic options in the wake of the decision.