Mount Desert Island’s Jacob Peabody and Ellsworth’s Beck Deeny battle for the ball during a 2019 high school boys’ soccer game in Ellsworth. The Maine Principals’ Association voted Aug. 27 to continue with plans for a 2020-21 fall sports season, though the proposal must receive state approval before high school athletics can be held this fall. FILE PHOTO

MPA approves fall sports season, but hurdles still remain

ELLSWORTHThe Maine Principals’ Association has given sports the OK to return — but the governing body must revise its plan before any athletic activities can take place this fall.

The MPA on Thursday unanimously approved a decision to go forward with a 2020 fall sports season. Yet on Tuesday, the return of high school sports was dealt a setback as state agencies recommended the MPA further delay the season.

Plans for the high school sports season changed when the MPA received a letter from Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Commissioner of Education Pender Makin. The joint letter detailed specific concerns with the plan the high school sports governing body outlined at its meeting five days earlier.

The MPA’s plan, the letter stated, contained a few proposals that “did not comport” with state guidelines. The agencies’ list of shortcomings included the MPA’s guidelines on the wearing of masks and face coverings, recommendation of 3-6 feet of spacing and “[silence] on the interaction with schools’ plans.”

“We would like to know, at your earliest convenience, if the MPA plans on modifying its guidance, and, if so, how,” the letter stated. “We urge you to consider extending your delayed start date for fall sports.”

Under the MPA’s current proposal, countable games, matches and meets cannot be held until Sept. 18 for golf, cross-country, volleyball, field hockey and soccer and Sept. 25 for football. A timetable for when such a season would conclude has yet to be established.

Hancock County runners compete in a 2019 cross-country meet at Bucksport High School. Cross-country courses will be widened this year to provide more spacing between athletes, who are likely to be given staggered start times. FILE PHOTO

The plan outlined Thursday would allow the return of the five “low-risk” or “moderate-risk” sports: golf, cross-country, volleyball, field hockey and soccer. Football, the lone “high-risk” sport, would be cleared for preseason action, though the MPA would have to give the sport additional clearance before countable games can be held.

The MPA made an “easy” decision in approving golf, a low-risk activity that Sports Medicine Committee Chairman William Heinz noted as having been played safely this summer under Maine State Golf Association guidelines. Those guidelines prohibit pin removals, the use of bunker rakes and groups of more than four players.

Athletes competing in cross-country must be masked prior to and immediately following the conclusion of races. Courses will be widened throughout and adjusted to provide large finish-line chutes for runners, who are likely to be given staggered start times and will be asked not to collapse to the ground after reaching the finish line.

“One of the things we deal with in cross-country is athletes reaching the finish line and then collapsing at the finish,” Heinz said. “Well, that’s not going to work; it’s too much of a log jam, and we’ve got to keep those kids moving through there.”

Field hockey, which is not offered at any of the six Hancock County high schools, will introduce longer intermissions and allow teams to make only one substitution at a time. Soccer will allow a maximum of five players surrounding the goalkeeper inside the 6-yard box on corner kicks, prohibit slide-tackling within 6 feet and implement breaks for hydration and sanitization.

Soccer is the only sport for which the risk is categorized differently by NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) guidelines, which classify it as moderate-risk, and the state’s community sports guidelines, which classify it as high-risk. Yet after deliberation, the MPA Soccer Committee was able to present the sport as a moderate-risk activity without suggesting drastic changes to how the game is played.

“With soccer, it’s not like football, where you’re in someone’s face all the time,” said Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost, who is also the Soccer Committee chairman. “We talked about things like getting rid of throw-ins and headers, but we didn’t want to change the rules so much that it compromised the integrity of the game.”

Volleyball, another moderate-risk sport and the lone fall athletic activity to be played indoors, would also see some major changes in 2020. Those in the gymnasium during matches — including players on the floor — would be required to wear masks or face coverings at all times, and teams would not rotate sides of the court between sets.

Ellsworth/Sumner’s Chris Cobb makes a tackle during the first half of a 2019 high school football game against Sacopee Valley at Ellsworth High School. MPA Sports Medicine Committee Chairman William Heinz said football has been given the “blinking yellow light” for 2020. FILE PHOTO

Football, the lone fall sport to be designated as high-risk across the board, was the subject of much more controversy. Although Heinz agreed with football’s classification as a high-risk activity, he cited the lack of any major outbreaks stemming from the roughly 1,000 high school football games played thus far in 2020 as a major reason for the sport’s tentative approval.

“Overall, football may not be as risky as we think it is,” Heinz said. “With the other sports, I look at it as we’ve given them a green light; with football, I look at it that we’ve given them a blinking yellow light, and if anything happens throughout the country or within the state of Maine as far as increased transmission, then we are going to pull that recommendation.”

The MPA’s decision came a day after the governing body’s Sports Medicine Committee made formal recommendations for each fall sport. Some of those recommendations, particularly the approval of football, came as somewhat of a surprise to athletic directors and other administrators around the state.

“I was surprised but certainly relieved that they proposed all sports being offered,” Mount Desert Island Athletic Director Bunky Dow said. “There were some times along the way when we thought that would never happen, so it’s great to be in a position now where we might be able to do it.”

If sports are played this fall, contests will be subject to 100-person and 50-person limits on outdoor and indoor gatherings, respectively. Players, coaches, referees, medical trainers, administrators and media members would all count toward those totals, leaving little room, if any, for spectators.

In some cases, teams might have to reduce roster sizes in order to keep events within the aforementioned state guidelines on gatherings. Some cross-country and football teams frequently boast roster sizes of 50 athletes or more, a situation that would be beneficial most years but is instead problematic in the era of social distancing.

“If you look at a school like Thornton Academy or Bonny Eagle, their football teams have 80 people on the roster,” Frost said. “You’re already cutting it pretty close right there, and that doesn’t account for the coaches, the officials or the opposing team. … These are some difficult decisions that each school has to talk about as an administrative team.”

Fall sports have been called off completely in California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. A number of other states have moved football, soccer and/or other high-contact sports to the spring while pushing start dates for other sports to later in the fall.

George Stevens Academy’s Evelyn Dagan sets the ball during a 2019 high school volleyball match against Machias in Blue Hill. New MPA guidelines would see some major changes to volleyball, including the wearing of masks or face coverings at all times. MARK MESSER PHOTO/GEORGE STEVENS ACADEMY

If approved by state agencies, the MPA plan would allow teams to begin practices on the previously agreed-upon date of Sept. 8. Yet MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham clarified during the meeting that individual school districts may push back the start of practices to a later date if necessary.

“It is not a mandate that you have to start on that day,” Burnham said. “We have heard from some districts that they are looking at postponing that start date. … That local decision would be supported by our office and all of our school committees.”

Last week, Camden Hills Regional High School became the first school in the state to announce it would not be offering sports this fall. Other high schools, such as Orono and Gardiner, announced immediately after the MPA gave its approval that they would be offering 2020 fall seasons.

Locally, Deer Isle-Stonington High School has already announced it will not be offering soccer this fall. That decision was made after the school district’s board voted at its most recent meeting to cancel fall sports that could not meet Maine Department of Education guidelines for social distancing.

“This was not an easy decision for our school board to make or for me to recommend as we both know the importance that after-school activities play in many of our students’ lives,” School Union 76 Superintendent Christian Elkington wrote in an email to parents. “It is our hope to still have fall golf and cross-country following social distancing expectations.”

Ellsworth, Frost said, is awaiting the final word from the state before it goes forward with any decision on the season. Dow, who met with MDI Regional School System Superintendent Marc Gousse on Friday, said his school is also waiting for the state’s verdict, though he expressed guarded optimism that the district will be able to offer at least some activities.

“Our coaches have already reported back that they’re ready to go, and I know the kids are excited about the possibility, too,” Dow said. “I think we can do it, but there’s still some research I want to do before we get things started. The last thing anyone wants to do is do something reckless that starts an outbreak.”

Update: This story has been updated to include comments from local administrators as well as the state’s response to the proposals outlined in Thursday’s MPA meeting.

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]