ELLSWORTH — For years, sports in Hancock County have been a given. Then, in 2020, everything changed.
An entire season canceled; delays after delays to fall and winter practices and competitions; masked coaches, spectators (if allowed) and, in some, cases, athletes. Those images and many more told the story of a year with no precedent on the local sports circuit.
No, nothing has been the same since the novel coronavirus pandemic arrived in March and brought sports to a screeching halt locally and all over the world. With stringent protocols in place on and off the fields, courts, tracks and mats, opportunities to compete have been scarce — if they’ve been available at all.
“Sports and extracurricular activities are critical to so many kids, and without them, it’s definitely been a tough year on a lot of people,” said Dan Curtis, head coach of the Ellsworth baseball team. “You get used to them as a routine that you get excited about when you know the season is coming. It’s really tough when you have that taken away.”
Locally, the first cancellations came down March 12, the day Maine announced its first presumptive positive case of COVID-19. Over the next 48 hours, organizers of college tournaments, road races, youth championships and even the Great Harbor Shootout had pulled the plug on their respective events.
The Maine Principals’ Association, though, initially decided to postpone the start of spring practices from March 30 to April 27 rather than cancel the season altogether. Yet on April 8, the MPA came forth with the announcement that high school coaches and athletes feared would come: Spring sports were a no-go.
Even before the MPA announced the cancellation, local athletes had an inkling that a spring season would not materialize. In what was already shaping up to be a drier, warmer spring than in years past, bracing for a season without sports was anything but easy.
“It kind of hurts to look out at the fields right now,” Sara Shea of the Ellsworth softball team said in early April. “You see all the nice weather and think to yourself, ‘Oh, it’s close,’ but it’s not.”
Some area Little League programs began modified baseball and softball seasons in late spring and early summer, though others, such as Ellsworth Little League, elected to cancel theirs. At the club level, Acadia Fire Soccer Academy, the Down East Family YMCA and other local organizations resumed activities.
With the arrival of the late-summer months, conversations began swirling as to the possibility of a fall 2020 season. After two months of back-and-forth between the MPA and state agencies and the postponement of the initial Aug. 17 start date for practices, the former announced Aug. 27 that it would be offering all fall activities.
Five days later, though, Department of Health and Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Governor Janet Mills wrote a letter to the MPA disapproving of the governing body’s plans for the fall season. In response, the MPA delayed the start of fall practices and removed traditional football and indoor volleyball from its list of offerings.
The resulting fall sports season was unrecognizable from those of years gone by. Football (seven-on-seven format) and volleyball (played outdoors with players wearing masks) took on altered forms; the soccer playoffs and state championship cross-country meet were canceled; school districts were forced to postpone or cancel competitions as a result of potential COVID-19 exposure.
“I think the biggest thing we had to do in the fall was just be flexible,” Mount Desert Island Athletic Director Bunky Dow told The American last month. “There was just so much changing every day, and you had to be willing to roll with it. Our kids and our coaches did a great job of that.”
One Hancock County high school, Sumner, did not participate in fall athletics at all after the Regional School Unit 24 Board of Directors voted 6-3 to cancel the season. Earlier this month, the Board of Directors voted by that same margin to cancel winter sports.
Even at the five Hancock County high schools that are participating in winter sports, there will be more questions than answers as a new year begins. Athletes and coaches will be gathering in indoor settings that increase the risk of transmission, and they’ll be doing so at a time when the state’s seven-day average of new daily cases is more than 10 times what it was when the fall season began.
Yet if life in 2020 has taught the world anything, it’s been resilience in the face of new developments. The flipping of the calendar itself won’t alleviate the challenges facing local athletics, but even if there are restrictions and guidelines, players, coaches, fans, administrators and other Hancock County sports aficionados will keep the faith and do whatever they can to get as close to the action as possible.
“I think the biggest message is to hold out that hope and prepare yourself for when times are good again,” Curtis said. “Hopefully, we can find light at the end of the tunnel soon and get back to some level of normal.”