AUGUSTA — A potential winter sports season took further shape this week as the Maine Principals’ Association unveiled its winter sports safety guidelines.
The new guidelines followed the MPA Interscholastic Management Committee’s latest meeting Thursday. The governing body’s update provided further guidance on competition dates as well as information on football, volleyball and wrestling.
Major news came regarding wrestling, the lone “high-risk” winter sport and the only winter activity not to receive initial clearance for competition to begin in January. The MPA delayed wrestling meets until at least Feb. 22, nearly a month and a half after other winter sports would be allowed to begin.
Should wrestling receive clearance to begin in late February, the season would be capped at 10 meets with dual or tri-meets the recommended form of competition. Mount Desert Island Athletic Director Bunky Dow said the MPA Wrestling Committee’s hope is that a different public health environment later in the winter can allow the sport to go forward.
“The committee wanted to be able do something to try and salvage the season,” Dow said. “It would probably be a six-week season, and in the meantime, kids and coaches can still get together and do non-contact drills and skill development.”
The MPA also circled Feb. 22 as a potential start date for volleyball, which was not permitted to be played indoors this fall. Volleyball teams would be allowed to play a maximum of 10 matches over a six-week period that would conclude around the first week of April.
For football, the other fall sport that could not be played in 2020, the MPA is pushing for a season that would begin in mid-May and conclude in July. That marks a change from the MPA’s previous proposal to begin football at the same time as volleyball in the late winter or early spring.
Should high school football be played during that window, it would leave very little turnaround time between a late-spring season and a potential fall 2021 season. Yet for senior football players looking to cap off their high school careers, any opportunity to don the pads, helmet and uniform one last time would be a blessing.
“I would honestly like any chance to be able to leave everything that we’ve worked for these last four years out on the field,” said Bucksport football’s Gavin Billings. “It would be great to get some closure to everything and be able to go out like that.”
Basketball season is set to begin Jan. 11 and conclude Feb. 27. Teams are permitted to play a maximum of 12 countable contests, though it is unclear at the moment whether or not that number includes regional or “pod” tournament games.
The 2021 basketball season will conclude with those regional or pod championship events. That’s because, for the first time since the state tournament was first held in 1922, the unthinkable has become official: There will be no tourney time in Maine come February.
“It was a heartbreaking sentence to read that there would straight-up be no state tourney,” said Sierra Andrews, a senior on the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team. “We’ve been extremely mature through this whole thing, and they’ve taken everything that we’ve had from us completely. Now, they’re saying, ‘OK, there’s no tourney three months from now; nothing’s going to change.’”
In another massive change from past years, basketball games will begin with a coin flip rather than an opening tip-off. Players and coaches must also stay in the bench area during halftime rather than go to their respective locker rooms.
“Things like the coin flip and not having any fans in the gym are going to be extremely weird,” Andrews said. “I think that’s just them doing whatever can to make the games happen, so we have to be thankful for all of that.”
Cheer squads are unlikely to be present at games this year as the MPA Cheering Committee has recommended that sideline cheer be discontinued during the winter season. Cheer competitions, which had already been modified to disallow verbal cheering and pyramids, will be held virtually rather than in a single location.
“I think cheering is the only sport where you’re going to have a state champion crowned,” said Dow, who is also a committee member for the sport. “We’re having discussions of a virtual meet where you do your routine in your own gym, film it and send the tape off for the judges to rank it.”
Swim meets, if held, are likely to be virtual as well. Yet with few schools having their own pools, there will need to be coordination between swim teams and YMCAs or other aquatic facilities, which are battling their own restrictions and capacity limits.
The state’s school districts will make their own decisions as to whether athletics will be able to go forward at their respective high schools. In Hancock County, Sumner Memorial High School was the only high school not to participate in sports during the fall semester.
With the pandemic worsening at a rapid pace and a month and a half remaining until the first contests could be held, the MPA’s recommendations are far from final verdicts. Even as they hold out hope, local athletes know there are hurdles to be cleared in the months to come.
“I’m not even going to think about whether there’s going to be [a season] until after Thanksgiving break because I think everyone gathering is going to make cases spike again,” Andrews said. “It’s hard when you wake up every day and see more guidelines on everything, but we have to hope for the best and be grateful for whatever we get.”