ELLSWORTH — Fall sports will start later than originally planned after the Maine Principals’ Association elected Tuesday to delay the start of the 2020 season.
Practices will now begin Sept. 8, three weeks later than the original start date of Aug. 17. To account for that change, the date teams are eligible to hold their first countable games, matches and meets has been pushed back from Sept. 4 to Sept. 18.
The MPA Interscholastic Management Committee’s decision came following a recommendation by the body’s Sports Medicine Committee. The move, according to the MPA’s press release, “will allow districts to work on their return-to-school plan without the worry of starting fall sports.”
“I think it’s the right decision,” Mount Desert Island Athletic Director Bunky Dow told The Ellsworth American. “I think we were basically all in agreement that academics, not athletics, need to be the reason we decide to open schools.”
The delay, Dow said, means that teams will play shortened seasons consisting of the minimum number of allowable contests. The MPA is still planning to hold postseasons for all fall sports, though that plan could still change in the coming weeks.
The MPA has permitted athletes in the state to hold workouts with teammates and coaches since July 6. Yet many schools in Hancock County and other areas of the state have elected not to hold those workouts, choosing instead to wait until August to begin team activities.
High school sports have not been played in the state of Maine since the unified basketball season was put on hold in early March. The MPA announced April 9 that it was canceling the spring sports season, a decision Ellsworth’s Josh Frost and other athletic directors around the state are hoping they won’t have to make again as a new school year approaches.
“Spring was not fun,” Frost said. “You had all these beautiful days that were perfect for playing sports and being outside, and you couldn’t do it. You really want to be able to give these kids that chance this fall.”
In an effort to avoid transmission of the novel coronavirus, teams are being encouraged to adopt regional scheduling for the coming season. MDI, for example, will be adopting a soccer schedule that includes pod games against Ellsworth, George Stevens Academy, Sumner and Belfast and eschews its typical games against Caribou and Presque Isle.
Scheduling could be further complicated by differences in state recommendations for a return to school. On Friday, July 31, the Maine Department of Education will issue the state’s 16 counties color codes (green, yellow and red) indicating how prepared schools in each are to reopen. Playing sports in red counties, ones in which full remote learning curriculums are recommended, could be difficult to justify.
“I think that would be a decision that each school would make,” MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham told the Portland Press Herald earlier this month, “but if they’re in the red category, and they can’t be in school, I don’t see how they could have an athletic program going.”
Some schools could also choose to delay their opening games, matches and meets beyond the first day the MPA allows teams to hold countable contests. That is already the case at MDI, where Dow said the football team won’t begin regular season play until at least Sept. 24.
The MPA is now one of 24 high school sports governing bodies to have delayed its 2020 fall sports season. Additionally, governing bodies in California, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia have already announced that football will not be played this fall.
“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, but at least we’re in a better position here than a lot of other places,” Frost said. “Hopefully, by moving to regional scheduling, we have a way to work it out.”
If the fall sports season does take place, the athletic experience will be different. Players and fans on benches or in the bleachers could be forced to space themselves out in a manner that could be difficult at such large gatherings. Social distancing guidelines set forth by the National Federation of High Schools in May could even preclude spectators and vendors from attending.
“One fear of mine is, ‘OK, how is this going to look?’” Dow said. “I don’t want to deny families that chance to be there and watch, but those guidelines have to be followed as strictly as possible.”
For now, at least, having a fall sports season in 2020 — even if it looks very different than those from years past — is the plan. Yet very little has gone according to plan throughout the pandemic, and with more than a month and a half until the first scheduled games can be held, nothing is a sure bet.
“I think we all try to be optimistic, but realistically, I just don’t know,” Dow said. “I was all excited last week, but I went into another meeting [Monday] that made me less optimistic. We’re just in a spot where we have to wait and see.”