David Utterback, the athletic administrator at Brewer High School, has drawn up a proposal to switch high-risk sports to later in the school year and to play lower-risk sports earlier in the calendar to help reduce the potential affects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Forrest

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The start of the next school year and the status of high school sports remain up in the air because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brewer High School athletic director David Utterback has submitted a proposal to the Maine Principals’ Association to help make it easier for athletes to compete during the fall season if students have returned to the classroom in some capacity.

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Utterback has suggested the MPA reverse the sports seasons to allow more time for the medical professionals to develop a medication or vaccine to combat the coronavirus. His plan calls for high-risk sports to be moved to later in the year to provide a safe environment for the athletes.

“It’s not a complete flip-flop,” Utterback said. “I’m just taking the sports identified as low-risk sports and starting out the school year with them and pushing the higher-risk sports down the road as far as we can so we can get closer to eliminating or mitigating the virus or developing a vaccine for it.”

Under his proposal, traditional fall sports like football and soccer would be moved to the spring and spring sports such as baseball, softball and tennis would be played in the fall.

Golf, field hockey and cross country would be played in the fall as normal.

In the spring, boys and girls lacrosse and outdoor track and field would be held earlier in the season with football and soccer starting later.

Utterback’s plan also includes some tweaks to the winter season. Basketball, ice hockey, swimming, indoor track and skiing would all remain in the same window.

The proposal would create a new winter season that would begin in February and would include wrestling and competition cheerleading along with volleyball, which is traditionally a fall sport.

“I feel schools will be reluctant to hold indoor sporting events before allowing schools to resume the academic year, which for most districts in this area is August 31,” Utterback said.

Volleyball’s first practice is scheduled for Aug. 17.

The National Federation of State High School Associations recently released a blueprint for the safe return to sports activities including a number of safeguards and guidelines to follow.

It listed cross country, track and field, individual swimming events and skiing as low-risk sports. Basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, ice hockey, field hockey, tennis, swimming relays, pole vault, high jump, long jump and girls lacrosse were labeled moderate-risk sports and wrestling, football, boys lacrosse and competitive cheerleading were identified as high-risk sports.

“The goal at the end of the day is to avoid the term ‘cancel,’” Utterback said.

The MPA canceled the spring sports season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Utterback said he knows the MPA is taking the proposal seriously because “as the outgoing chairman of the baseball committee, [MPA executive director] Mike Burnham placed it on the agenda for a joint meeting between the baseball and softball committees that was held last Thursday.

“It was the first time it had been seen by an MPA committee in a formal capacity,” added Utterback, who noted that several leagues have also looked at it.

Utterback said his plan stemmed from the disappointment he saw from his student-athletes when the spring season was canceled.

“I watched the fear in our kids’ eyes in March when they found out they might not have a season and the sadness everybody felt when it became a reality,” Utterback said.

Orono High School athletic director Mike Archer and Foxcroft Academy AD Tim Smith like the concept.

Archer said it is important to offer options to the MPA and the school superintendents at a time when there is so much uncertainty.

“I don’t want to put the kids in a situation where they lose another season of high school sports,” Archer said. “No one can measure how much mental anguish and anxiety was experienced by the kids this spring and I don’t want to compound it this fall.”

He said Utterback’s proposal is a little outside the box, but that is needed right now.

“I told our coaches, ‘don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,’” Archer said.

“The more options we can provide to our superintendents, the harder it will be for them to say ‘no’ to sports,” he added.

Smith agrees the proposal should be considered.

“It is definitely worth talking about,” said Smith. “The kids need something to do. They have already lost enough.”

One obstacle would be that multisport athletes may have two of their sports sponsored during the same season.

Several schools, such as Brewer and Orono, have restrictions that prevent student-athletes from playing two sports in the same season.

But several schools, including Foxcroft Academy, allow it. Class D schools often must allow dual-sport participation because they have such a small number of students.

Utterback and Archer indicated they would be willing to waive that rule so kids can participate. They also said they would make sure the athletes weren’t overextending themselves and said measures could be taken to ensure their health and well-being.

There are barely two months before the scheduled start of preseason practices for fall sports in Maine and there is less time for several schools in Aroostook County that begin early in an effort to work around the potato harvest break.

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