ELLSWORTH — As sports in Maine return with a slightly different look, they’re going to do so at the youth level first.
Between localized schedules and games that feature smaller gatherings and team roster sizes, youth and community sports have a number of built-in advantages in comparison to their high school, college and even professional counterparts. In Maine, where the COVID-19 rate is the second-lowest in the entire country, seeing such sports back in action will likely take place sooner here than it will elsewhere.
In both Ellsworth and Bucksport, local YMCA leaders are in the process of mapping out a return to — or, in one case, the continuance of — youth sports. Even if there are new adjustments that will take some getting used to, the effort is well worth it after a long stretch of isolation, youth sports leaders say.
“These kids need to have that interaction and be together and see each other,” Down East Family YMCA Youth Sports Director Shane Lowell said. “They went 15 weeks without any real interaction with each other, and it’s time for us to make something happen for them.”
In late June, youth sports officially returned at DEFY with the beginning of the organization’s Amateur Softball Association season. Coached by Lowell, Ron Bean, Josh Stevens and Steve Sullivan, the 11-member 14U team has been able to participate in numerous games against in-state opponents over the past several weeks.
Before, during and after games, things are different. Players can’t high-five, shake hands or share equipment, and coaches don’t exchange lineup cards with one another prior to the first pitch; softballs are sanitized rigorously between innings; in practices, players participate in small player pods aimed at reducing potential spread of the virus.
“For the most part, I’d say everything has gone really well,” Lowell said “It’s taken some time to get the hang of it, but the kids are just ecstatic to be together. … It’s not about winning or losing or even what they’re doing together; they could be bowling for all they care.”
Whereas the differences on the softball field haven’t necessarily changed the action that takes place during games, that won’t be the case when DEFY resumes its travel soccer program in the coming weeks. The 2020 travel soccer season will see players prohibited from heading the ball, and throw-ins will no longer take place after balls go out of play.
“We have to be very strict with these protocols and how closely they’re followed,” Lowell said. “It’s going to be challenging, but this is what we’re going to have to do to give the kids a chance to play.”
In Bucksport, September is set to be a big month for youth sports with registration for football and soccer still ongoing. Practices for both sports are currently scheduled to begin the week of Sept. 7.
Bucksport YMCA Director Matt McInnis, though, said the status of youth sports in the community remains “up in the air.” He wants youth sports in the area to be in lockstep with school sports, and with plans for the 2020-21 school year and fall sports season yet to be finalized, the YMCA is in wait-and-see mode.
“I think it makes sense for us for schools and the YMCA to be on the same page,” McInnis said. “In our case, a lot of the fields we use are owned by the RSU or the town, and we have to get their permission first. If the schools can’t be using them, why should we be able to?”
As has been the case throughout the ongoing pandemic, local youth sports leaders are optimistic — but they’re also uncertain. In the end, if there’s a way to bring back youth sports in some capacity, they’re going to do what they can to make it happen.
“We have to give them something because they need some kind of normalcy,” McInnis said. “We’re looking at every option we have and doing everything with their health and safety in mind.”