AUGUSTA — As the return of certain in-person athletic activities nears, the wait for more formal team practices and events is set to go on a little longer.
The Maine Principals’ Association announced Friday the delay of team-based practices and scrimmages until Jan. 4. The announcement means a wait of three additional weeks for those activities, which were set to begin Monday, Dec. 14.
The news marked the second major postponement of the 2020-21 winter sports season, which was originally slated to begin Nov. 16. The MPA had announced the first postponement of the season in late October.
A day prior to the announcement, Maine reported 349 new COVID-19 cases, the highest single-day increase on record. The state then set a new single-day high Monday with 425 additional cases.
In a statement, the MPA cited “an increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and positivity rate” as rationale for the decision. Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew also referenced the recent spike in cases throughout the state during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing with CDC Executive Director Nirav Shah.
“While we have seen this increase in COVID-19 spread in Maine, we still strive to do everything we can to keep our schools open for in-person learning when safe,” Lambrew said. “Cutting down on potential spread through sports practices and scrimmages could help us keep our schools open through the critical next few weeks.”
Although the delay put traditional, sport-centric practices are on hold for the time being, it did not preclude schools in counties that have received “green” designations under the Department of Education’s color-code guidelines from beginning in-person skills and development exercises. Monday marked the first day that schools in green counties were eligible to begin those activities.
The latest update to those color-code guidelines came less than two hours before the announcement of the delay. Whereas local coaches and athletes were feeling positive after Hancock County retained its green designation, news of the three-week hiatus put more of a damper on the afternoon.
“I was a little frustrated we had those two sets of things come out within a half-hour of each other, but I also think at this point you have to be used to things changing all the time,” said Andy Pooler, head coach of the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team. “It’s hard, but everyone’s doing their best, and they’ve put us in a position to succeed.”
For the teams that began Monday, the delay means a full month of individual drills and conditioning routines rather than going through intra-squad scrimmages, tryouts and team-oriented exercises. That’s not necessarily where coaches would like to be this time of year, but with nothing certain at the moment, they’re happy to be able to keep their athletes active while they wait for January’s arrival.
“It’s interesting, but I guess we can kind of look at it on one hand as a way to be able to focus on a couple things like being able to shoot more and work on some individual drills,” Pooler said. “We can kind of take a step back, strip it down a little bit and get back to basics.”
Neither Pooler nor MDI girls’ head coach Brent Barker were surprised at the delay of three additional weeks. With the number cases on the rise, Barker said, pushing some of the more team-oriented practices back until the new year could give games a better chance of taking place later in the season.
“I think the MPA, the state, our administration and everybody else are all trying to have our health and our best interests in mind,” Barker said. “Yeah, it’s disappointing, but we have to beat this thing somehow, and if that means keeping our spacing and not passing it on through playing and things like that, that’s what we have to do.”
The delay also leaves a turnaround time of just one week between the start of team-oriented practices and scrimmages and the first regular season contests. Under current guidelines, basketball, swim, cheer and indoor track teams may host their first games or meets Jan. 11. Wrestling meets cannot be held until at least Feb. 22.
Yet with the novel coronavirus continuing to surge throughout the state, coaches and athletes are aware that the current start dates are far from set in stone. For the moment, the emphasis is on positioning themselves to be ready when — or if — competition can begin.
“It’s a tough place to be because you don’t know when it’s going to end,” Barker said. “The thing we’ve got to do is be prepared for when they tell us it’s good to go, but for the time being, we’ve got to keep fighting this virus and be diligent. We can’t let our guards down now.”
Update: This story has been amended to include additional COVID-19 statistics as well as comments from DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and local coaches.