ELLSWORTH — After a frustrating end to 2020, the early days of 2021 have provided a beacon of hope for the Hancock County sports community.
Monday marked the first day of Level 2 and Level 3 competition for local high school teams, which were able to hold formal team practices and intra-squad scrimmages for the first time this winter. Three schools also unveiled schedules for games and meets, the first of which will be held next week.
Teams at Ellsworth, Bucksport, Sumner and Deer Isle-Stonington participated Monday in the first day of team tryouts. With the exception of Sumner, which was less than two weeks removed from being cleared for winter sports, those schools had previously been participating in approved skills and conditioning drills under Maine Principals’ Association and state guidelines.
“Girls’ and boys’ basketball and cheering held team-based practices that incorporated within-team competitions,” said Aaron Ward, athletic director at Bucksport High School. “It certainly was an exciting day for the kiddos, and they are hopeful to begin regionalized competition in the coming weeks.”
Some of those competitions now have tentative dates after Ellsworth, Bucksport and Deer Isle-Stonington unveiled schedules for the upcoming season. The Ellsworth boys’ and girls’ basketball teams are set to begin 12-game slates Jan. 19 against Hampden Academy, and Bucksport (12 games) and Deer Isle-Stonington (11 games) will begin their seasons against one another Jan. 18 (girls) and Jan. 19 (boys).
Ellsworth also announced virtual swim and cheer competitions as well as indoor track meets to be held at various locations throughout eastern Maine. The school is set to hold its first contest next Friday, Jan. 15, when the swim team faces Brewer.
Virtual and regional-based competitions will allow local teams to take on new sets of opponents this winter. Ellsworth’s basketball games against Hampden and Bangor will be matchups between programs that don’t traditionally play one another at any point during the season, and competing in swim meets virtually will allow for a contest against state powerhouse Cape Elizabeth in February.
“We were able to schedule some of those bigger schools we don’t normally see, and that’s something new and something the kids are excited about,” said Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost. “For basketball, we aren’t playing the [Aroostook County] teams, but we’ve added local games against Sumner and Bucksport, who we don’t usually play during the season.”
Elsewhere, George Stevens Academy is set to become the sixth and final Hancock County high school to begin winter athletic activities when it does so next week. Athletic Director Larry Gray told The American on Tuesday that the school plans to begin practices Monday, Jan. 11.
All practices and competitions are subject to Hancock County retaining its “green” designation in the Maine Department of Education’s color-code guidelines. The county has been green since the first color-code assignments were released July 31. The DOE updates color-code assignments every Friday.
Yet even if Hancock County remains green in the weeks ahead, there could also be dilemmas if neighboring counties slip into the yellow or red categories. Such a scenario in the fall affected Bucksport and Mount Desert Island, which were forced to cancel girls’ soccer games against Searsport after Waldo County went yellow in late October.
“That color wheel is always spinning, and you never know what you’ll see from week to week,” Frost said. “Fortunately, we were able to schedule it where we can move games around. If it happens that we can’t play Hampden, we could move up the games with Washington Academy from later in the year and play them first. You’ve got some options.”
MDI did not hold tryouts or other team-based activities Monday following AOS 91’s announcement that the school district would be transitioning to remote learning for two weeks. The move to remote learning means that athletics at the school are on hold until at least Jan. 18.
AOS 91’s switch to remote learning came after discussions amongst administrators and recommendations from MDI Hospital in the aftermath of the travel-heavy holiday season. The district announced the decision in a letter distributed to members of the local school community Saturday.
“It’s another setback, but if we’re allowed to start on the 18th, we’re going to do everything we can to give the kids a season,” MDI Athletic Director Bunky Dow said. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride, and I have to give credit to the kids and coaches for being flexible and being patient.”