The Bucksport cheer team goes through conditioning exercises Dec. 7 at Bucksport High School. Hancock County schools that had approved high school sports were eligible to begin skills and conditioning Monday, three days after the county retained its “green” designation in the Maine Department of Education’s color-code guidelines. AARON WARD PHOTO/BUCKSPORT HIGH SCHOOL

Winter sports practices begin with skills, conditioning exercises

ELLSWORTH — Here we are again.

Just over nine months ago, the final days of the 2019-20 winter season presented the last bit of order that the Maine high school sports circuit would see for some time. As Hancock County athletes participating in basketball, swimming, cheer, indoor track and wrestling competed for glory, no one could have imagined the chaos that lurked just around the corner.

“Looking back on everything, we barely got [the end of the season] in,” said Ellsworth head girls’ basketball coach Andy Pooler. “It was only two or three weeks after that that everything started shutting down.”

As 2020 nears a merciful conclusion, a new winter season has begun as the pandemic that brought the sports world to a halt continues to wreak havoc on the world. The scenes are different, and the margin for error is thin, but the resumption of workouts and individual drills is a beacon of hope as local athletes and coaches brace for Maine’s long winter months.

Athletes at select Hancock County high schools began winter athletic activities Monday with skills and conditioning exercises. The first practices marked the start of an uncertain winter season that continues to change direction with seemingly every passing day as the days become darker and colder.

The Maine Department of Education cleared the way for Hancock County school districts that had approved winter sports to begin when it maintained the county’s “green” designation in Friday’s color-code update. The green status allowed schools in Hancock County districts that had approved high school sports to begin Monday.

That was good news at Ellsworth and Bucksport, schools that had approved winter activities to begin on the first countable day. With no mandated move to hybrid learning, athletes at those schools could get started in-person rather than virtually.

“It felt really good to get out again, be around some people and just exercise and have a good time,” said Sara Shea, a senior on Ellsworth’s indoor track team. “It’s been hard to tell what’s going to happen, but I’m excited to be back.”

Teams were not allowed to hold tryouts, intra-squad scrimmages or more formal team practices, activities that were pushed back until Jan. 4. Yet with individual activities free to go forward with proper distancing measures in place, campuses were still sites of basketball players taking jump shots, cheerleaders leaping on mats and track team members running outdoors in the cool December air.

Members of the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team shoot during practice Dec. 7 at Ellsworth High School. Ellsworth and Bucksport are the only Hancock County high schools to have begun winter sports thus far. ANDY POOLER PHOTO

“We’re not allowed to pass the ball and play one-and-one and stuff like that, but we can work on our athleticism, and I think that’s really important,” said Ellsworth girls’ basketball’s Kylie Robidoux. “Even though they extended the deadline, it really doesn’t matter to me how long the season gets extended to as long as we’re able to play safely.”

The restrictions on spacing and moratoriums on team-oriented practices meant fewer people in gymnasiums during practice hours. Instead of gathering en masse for team tryouts, athletes participated in smaller pods throughout the afternoon and evening.

Athletes also practiced wearing masks as required under new state guidelines on community sports. Practicing and competing while masked will be a major adjustment this season, but with a full month left before the first countable contests can be held, there’s ample time for athletes to become accustomed to the new protocol.

“I think we did pretty well with the masks for the first day,” Robidoux said. “We’re all starting off a little bit slow, definitely, but we need that time to make sure that everyone gets comfortable with them. If we can get used to them, I think that’ll help push us ahead of our competition.”

Local athletes are fresh off a fall season that was cut short following the addition of the mask mandate to the community sports guidelines. Being deprived of their final home soccer game, Shea and Robidoux said, was a reminder of just how swiftly the pandemic can deliver a gut punch.

“You have to treat every event, game or whatever it is like it’s your last because you never know what’s going to come next,” Shea said. “When we played our last soccer game, we had no idea that it would be the last one. We know that could happen again.”

Although Ellsworth and Bucksport were the only Hancock County schools to begin Monday, other local schools are still planning to compete this fall. Deer Isle-Stonington is set to begin next Thursday, Dec. 17, and Mount Desert Island is in the approval process of a potential winter season.

To date, Sumner Memorial High School is the only school in Hancock County to have opted out of winter sports. George Stevens Academy has postponed a decision on high school athletics until at least early January, though head boys’ basketball coach Dwayne Carter is still hoping the school can offer some type of winter season.

“We’ve had some pretty big upticks in the community, so they’re just being a little more cautious,” Carter said. “I just want it to be safe, and as I’ve told [Athletic Director Larry Gray], I don’t even care if we play games at this point; if we could just practice or be in pods, that would be great.”

With cases peaking and the cold and flu season beginning, teams are walking a narrow tightrope to a potential slate of games in mid-January. Competing indoors, where the novel coronavirus is more easily transmitted, only adds to the list of challenges.

Yet in 2020, a year in which weeks have often felt like decades, what happens a month down the line is less important than the here and now. For athletes, the mindset is simple: Control what can be controlled and enjoy the memories while they last.

“We can’t worry about tomorrow because we know we could get a COVID case today and have our whole season gone like that,” Robidoux said. “Right now, I’m fortunate to be with my teammates and be in my home gym shooting the basketball. That’s what I enjoy in my life, and I’m happy that I’m able to do it while I still can.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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