SULLIVAN — For Hancock County’s easternmost school district, the return of sports is, at long last, within touching distance.
More than 10 months have passed since anyone at Sumner Memorial High School has been able to compete in practices, competitions or other team activities of any kind. Since then, athletes, coaches and parents at Sumner have spent their days agonizing over when the sports they loved could return.
Between a canceled spring season, a fall season in which their school was the only non-participant in Hancock County and a winter season that looked like a lost cause as recently as three weeks ago, those in the Sumner community have had a difficult year. Yet as 2020 comes to a close, the long-awaited return to action is here.
Sports are set to begin Jan. 4 at Sumner once again after the Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) Board of Directors approved a winter season in a 7-1 vote last Tuesday. That decision marked the reversal of a 6-3 vote earlier this month to cancel winter athletics and paved the way for the school’s basketball, cheer and indoor track teams to begin.
“It’s very exciting for all of us,” said Skylar Soule, a senior on the Sumner cheer team. “It’s hard right now with hybrid learning and things at school being all messed up, so I definitely feel that having sports back is something we all needed.”
Last week’s meeting followed three weeks of community input resulting from the Board of Directors’ Dec. 1 vote to nix the 2021 winter season. Athletes, coaches, parents and fans had voiced concerns about the mental health impact of losing another sports season and also pointed out that other local high schools had begun winter workouts.
Making that pitch to the board took significant coordination on behalf of Sumner parents and students. That coordination was the job of Jenna Shorey, who gave an introductory speech at last Tuesday’s meeting and formed the Sumner Parent Partnership to help parents in the district make a formal case for winter sports.
“[Jenna] really stepped up to the plate for the kids,” Sumner parent Jennifer Soule said. “She put a lot of time and effort into it. The community was simply amazing, and the school board listened and did the right thing by letting these kids play.”
After the Board of Directors’ earlier vote against winter sports and three separate votes against a season back in the fall, many at Sumner were preparing for the worst again. This vote, after all, was set to come hours after the state of Maine reported 753 new cases, the most reported on a single day since the pandemic began.
Yet the Sumner community later found itself pleasantly surprised as four board members who voted Dec. 1 to cancel winter sports voted this time to allow a season. One of those members, Chairman Roy Gott, told The American in an email Tuesday that he was “no longer sufficiently convinced that our actions in halting sports will have a net positive effect in combating the spread.”
“What changed for me was a point that was brought up in a discussion with another board member,” Gott said, “which was, why should we hold ourselves to this high principle of not having sports in favor of preventing the spread of COVID when, in practically every other scenario outside of school, there was a very high likelihood that the students or their surroundings would not be held to a similar standard?”
Sumner is scheduled to begin practices Monday, Jan. 4, which is also the first day high school athletic programs in Maine may hold traditional team practices and scrimmages. To date, only skills and conditioning exercises have been permitted under Maine Principals’ Association and state agency guidelines.
With teams eligible to take part in their first countable contests the following Monday, Jan. 11, there will be very little time for athletes and coaches to get competition-ready. In the meantime, Athletic Director Rick Dube is working to get the latter up to speed with proper protocols and scheduling games and meets ahead of the coming season.
“Mr. Dube right now, this week, is working with our coaches on winter athletics,” Sumner Principal Ty Thurlow said Monday in a video address. “There is a lot of training and necessary education that goes into beginning a sports season here in the pandemic. … We’ll have more information forthcoming on sign-ups and tryouts in the new year.”
RSU 24 was not the only Maine school district to reverse course on sports last Tuesday as RSU 73 (Spruce Mountain High School) overturned a prior vote to cancel the winter season. No Hancock County school districts have outstanding resolutions forbidding winter sports, though one school, George Stevens Academy, has yet to approve a season.
If competition can go forward Jan. 11, there will, of course, be differences — masks, no state basketball tournament, no indoor track meets in Orono and virtual cheer meets, just to name a few. Yet for those at a school that’s had no opportunities since last winter, even the most unusual of seasons will be a blessing.
“It’s worth it just to have sports,” Skylar Soule said. “We’re glad we were able to voice our opinions and be heard.”