ELLSWORTH — The opening game of the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team’s 2021 season will be a big departure from the norm.
In a typical year, Ellsworth will begin its 18-game regular season slate with a showdown against a familiar Penobscot Valley Conference foe. Whether the Eagles are traveling to Orono on a Saturday morning or hosting Washington Academy on a Tuesday night, the team is usually taking on an opponent of similar stature for its opening contest.
“It’s pretty routine from year to year,” head coach Andy Pooler said. “You know who their key players are, you know who their coach is, you know all of that.”
When Pooler’s Eagles play their first game of the new season this year, though, the team will have little familiarity with its opponents. Ellsworth’s upcoming Tuesday night showdown against Hampden Academy will test the Eagles’ mettle in a matchup between two teams that rarely, if ever, play one another during the regular season.
Such matchups will provide yet another twist to a winter sports season that will be stranger than any in recent memory. Between regionalized schedules in basketball and virtual meets in other winter sports, Hancock County teams are set to add some new opponents to the mix over the next six weeks.
“I think it’s an opportunity for something new and to break up the monotony,” Pooler said. “We knew going into this year that it was going to be a bit different in terms of who we would play, and that’s a chance to see how we do against teams we don’t normally get to face.”
Under Maine Principals’ Association and state guidelines, teams will be restricted to competition against opponents in adjacent counties this winter. For Hancock County schools, that limits the list of schedulable opponents to schools in Washington, Penobscot and Waldo counties.
For Ellsworth, that means basketball games against Caribou, Presque Isle, Houlton, Maine Central Institute and Foxcroft are off the table this year. The school has also dropped a longtime Penobscot County opponent, Old Town, from both of its 12-game slates.
In lieu of those teams, Ellsworth has added games against Hampden, a powerhouse in both boys’ and girls’ play, and Brewer, another solid Class A team. The Eagles are also scheduled to face Class AA Bangor, the third-largest high school in the state.
“We’re hoping that those games give the kids something to be excited about,” Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost told The American last week. “Those are good teams and big schools, and playing them is not a chance we usually have during the season.”
Regionalized competition has also led to more matchups between Hancock County teams. New basketball fixtures this year include boys’ and girls’ games between Ellsworth and Sumner and a boys’ matchup between Ellsworth and Bucksport.
In swim and dive, Ellsworth is scheduled to begin a five-meet regular season slate when it competes in a virtual meet against Brewer on Friday, Jan. 15. The team’s meets this season will be held at 8 p.m. Fridays at the Down East Family YMCA.
One of those meets will be a Feb. 5 competition against Bangor and Cape Elizabeth. Although a regular season meet that includes both Ellsworth and Cape Elizabeth would be unlikely during a typical year, the introduction of virtual competitions this winter has made the 175-mile distance between the two schools a non-factor.
Bridging that physical distance will be a necessary endeavor this season for swim teams across the state. With many Maine high school swim teams unable to use YMCA or college pool facilities this year, the number of high schools offering swim and dive has dwindled — a circumstance that has required many southern Maine teams to seek competition elsewhere.
“A good portion of the schools down south, I’d say probably half of them or a third of them, aren’t swimming this year because they don’t have pools they can use,” Ellsworth head coach Jim Goodman said. “For the schools down there like Cape Elizabeth that do have pools, they need someone they can compete against, and the virtual meets allow us to make that work.”
The circumstances that have brought about a need for this year’s schedule changes, of course, are far from ideal, and disruptions resulting from inclement weather or COVID-19 exposure are always possible. As they prepare for games and practices, local players and coaches are doing so with the knowledge that their schedules at season’s end might look very different from those of the present moment.
“I feel like we’re finally trending in the right direction, but with this situation, nothing can be set in stone,” Pooler said. “We know we can be on a bus and be halfway to the game and then be told, ‘Hey, turn around and come back,’ so whoever and wherever we play, we have to make it enjoyable.”