ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine field house has been the home to the Penobscot Valley Conference-Eastern Maine Indoor Track League since its inception 43 years ago.
So far this winter, the region’s high school athletes and their UMaine counterparts have been left out in the cold.
Work continues on a $5 million renovation to the New Balance Field House. The facelift is not expected to be completed until late this month, at the earliest, according to UMaine Associate Athletic Director for Internal Operations Will Biberstein.
“Everybody involved wants to make sure that we get those athletes — the collegiate athletes and the local high schools and the middle schools — back in that facility,” Biberstein said.
“Things are moving along. There’s a lot of work being done,” he added. “It’s going to be one beautiful building, a real showcase for us.”
UMaine initially had projected an October completion date, then pushed the reopening to December. However, Biberstein said the timeline was moved back with the discovery of additional hazardous materials and construction issues that arose once work began last spring on the 90-year-old structure.
Without the facility, the PVC-EMITL has nowhere to compete. After initially canceling its Jan. 3 meet, league director Mary Cady recently informed athletic directors and coaches that the first meet has been tentatively rescheduled for Jan. 25.
“In the meantime, I’m exploring options at other indoor facilities in the state and hope they work out,” said Cady, who explained she has contacted Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges, most of which have extremely limited availability.
Cady said PVC-EMITL coaches are frustrated about the situation, but realize it is out of their hands.
The Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, which also uses some of the other colleges’ facilities, has no place to hold meets after Jan. 15, Cady explained.
The PVC-EMITL usually has held two weekends of exhibition meets and one regular-season meet by now. Even if the field house has reopened by Jan. 25, high school athletes will have lost as many as six competition dates.
The PVC-EMITL then would have two regular-season meets prior to its scheduled championships on Feb. 8. The state meets are set for Feb. 17.
A few eastern Maine teams competed at the USM Relays and the Bowdoin Relays late last month. Bangor, Brewer and Hampden have been invited to participate in the Jan. 18 Southern Maine Activities Association meets in Portland.
Maine high school teams always practice extensively indoors. However, a lack of space, the lack of jumping runways and pits and hard floor surfaces mean those efforts are limited.
Bangor coach Jaimie Jarvis said her athletes had been throwing the shot put and doing some distance work outdoors when the weather was better.
“It’s been a little too chilly to do that lately,” she said.
Jarvis explained that the Rams try to simulate the long jump approach, use pole vault mechanisms in the weight room to work on inversion and do some sprinting and a few hurdles in the hallway near the cafeteria.
“We’re pretty much doing what we have done in the past, but we have some great coaches who are being more creative than they ever have before,” Jarvis said.
Most UMaine athletes are away on semester break, but head coach Mark Lech said they have utilized the Mahaney Dome for much of their work, including technical events, throws, jumps, hurdles and sprints.
“The limitations were, we couldn’t do everything exactly, like vaulters going over a bar and no sand in the pits to land, but just trying to stay fit and work on the technical aspects we could,” Lech explained.
“This is ‘old school,’ when ‘indoor track’ was really ‘winter track.’ Workouts and races were outdoors,” said Lech, who credited assistant coaches Tiana Riel and Gerhard Skall as utilizing their experience and creativity.
UMaine performed well in its first meet at New Hampshire and he expects more of the same.
“As long as they stay fit, focused and competitive, they will do OK,” he said.
Cady and Jarvis said UMaine has offered to allow high school athletes to use the Mahaney Dome for some of their workouts as they wait for the field house to re-open.
“Our kids have been extremely positive,” Jarvis said of handling the adversity.
Since PVC-EMITL athletes will have few opportunities to qualify for the state meets, Cady said the league will extend its qualifying standards and likely will petition the Maine Principals’ Association to provide some flexibility with state-meet standards in some events.
Biberstein said crews at the New Balance Field House have begun pouring the Beynon rubberized floor and are erecting bleachers on the west end of the track.
He said the greatest concerns for PC Construction of Portland and UMaine’s Facilities Management are meeting the safety needs of future participants and spectators. There are numerous small details that must be addressed.
“They’re working hard, pushing long days and bringing in more people to get everything done,” Biberstein said.
In the meantime, area track and field athletes must make the best of training opportunities outdoors or in their school gymnasiums and hallways.
“We’re getting closer to the finish line,” Biberstein said. “Everybody knows how important this building is to the community and we’re going to be excited when we get it completed and get people back in here.”