AUGUSTA — Maine high school sports might finally be getting — dare it be said — just a little bit more normal.
After more than a year of dealing with the unfamiliar on courts, fields, diamonds and tracks throughout the state, local athletes, coaches and administrators are beyond ready for the return of the atmospheres that have long defined the games they love. Thanks to some new guidelines, there is optimism that that return could be just around the corner.
The Maine Department of Economic Coordination and Development announced Friday changes to the state’s guidelines on community sports. Those relaxed guidelines, which follow an announcement last week easing gathering limits beginning March 26, could pave the way for a spring season that looks much more like years past.
The state’s new community sports guidelines allow for teams in “low-risk” sports to participate in all competitions and those in medium-risk sports to participate in all but a select few. The guidelines were also revised for high-risk sports, which are now able to begin intra-squad competition.
Under the new guidelines, state championship events could be held this spring should the Maine Principals’ Association choose to offer them. To date, in-person competitions have only been held between teams from adjacent counties.
“There are a lot of factors with it you have to consider at the school level, but just opening up the possibility of being able to play for something at the end of the year is exciting news,” said Jake Hackett, head coach of the Ellsworth softball team. “It would also be good to not have to worry about county lines and who can play where.”
Hackett became optimistic about the possibility of at least a semi-normal spring season in late February. As he watched the vaccine rollout progress smoothly and infection rates drop nationwide, he began clearing out brush up on the school’s softball field.
The state’s initial announcement of eased gathering restrictions only made Hackett even more hopeful about the coming year. Friday’s update to the community sports guidelines, then, came as little surprise to Ellsworth’s second-year head coach.
“You could kind of see it heading in that direction,” Hackett said. “For softball and all the other spring sports, you’re out in the open air, and that helps a lot. Once we got through the pod basketball championships without major problems, I felt we were in good shape.”
The eased gathering limits are especially good news for track teams, which often field as many as 50 athletes. Meets with multiple teams would therefore have been challenging under a 100-person limit, but with schools able to allow 75 percent of permitted occupancy at outdoor events rather than capping maximum attendance at 100 people, in-person competitions are on the table statewide.
A bit of normalcy might also return in the areas surrounding local playing fields, where spectators congregating to cheer on their local teams are a familiar sight as spring’s warmer weather arrives. After being forced to shut fans out of most athletic events all year, athletic directors are hoping that fines lining the fences at their facilities could be a reality once again.
“If I have my way, I want fans to be able to come,” said Mount Desert Island Athletic Director Bunky Dow. “Hopefully, if we abide by the distancing and masking, we’ll have a situation where that can happen. I really want that to happen because I certainly miss them being there.”
Players miss the fans, too. Although spectators were allowed in limited capacities at certain fall events, they were prohibited from winter events with only a few exceptions made to commemorate Senior Night festivities and some career 1,000-point scorers in basketball.
Playing in empty gyms, Ellsworth’s Sierra Andrews said, was one of the most surreal parts of the 2021 basketball season. As she gets set for her senior season with the school’s tennis team, Andrews is hoping her last time in Ellsworth colors can come in front of a real crowd.
“Obviously tennis is different than basketball in terms of fans, but you still want to be playing in front of the community,” Andrews said. “That’s a part of the experience, and not having that for some of our basketball games, especially the rivalry games, was tough.”
Even if fans and statewide playoffs do return, there will still be some protocols in place that will make the games feel a bit different. In baseball, those changes include moving benches outside of dugout areas and moving the home-plate umpire behind the pitching mound in an effort to reduce close-contact situations.
Busing, Dow added, could present an issue for teams hoping to travel longer distances this spring. State restrictions and guidelines on spacing aren’t exactly kind to teams looking to transport dozens of players, coaches and other personnel, and the statewide shortage of bus drivers could leave schools hard-pressed to find proper transportation.
“In my opinion, that’s the biggest obstacle to overcome,” Dow said. “Right now, you can only get 24 on a bus, so for a track team with 80 kids, you’re looking at four buses. You also have drivers being used for all different things, and some drivers might not be available until 4 o’clock most days. That is going to be an issue for us.”
Yet those dilemmas, though not insignificant, are a mere footnote to the general senses of optimism and enthusiasm that those involved with high school sports are feeling right now. Nothing has been solidified just yet, but the fears and uncertainties that were pervasive entering other sports seasons over the past year are starting to dissipate.
“You can really tell the kids are more excited than they’ve been in a while,” Hackett said. “Whenever they see me, they get those looks on their faces; they know it’s getting close to that time. It’s really a great thing to see.”
Whereas the fall and winter sports season were delayed, such a wait is unlikely this spring. The Maine Principals’ Association’s current plan, Dow said, would allow for schools to begin workouts for pitchers and catchers March 22 and practices for other spring athletes March 29.
Should those start dates materialize, some teams could be together again in a matter of no time. After being thankful merely for the chance to play in the fall and winter, Andrews thinks those teams will be more eager to prove themselves than ever.
“I feel like this is going to be a super-competitive year,” Andrews said. “Everybody has been training hard, and not having a spring season last year is just pushing everyone even harder this year. … Hopefully, we can keep moving forward and not take a step back.”