Jim Leonard may on Tuesday morning have been the first athletic administrator in the state to email high school fall sports schedules out to the media.
The five attachments included Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield’s slate of seven one-hand-touch, 7-on-7 football games, six regular-season golf matches and 10 games apiece for field hockey, boys soccer and girls soccer.
But in the COVID-19 era, even the most black-and-white documents include a shade of gray that, while unseen, is acknowledged.
“I’ve got 10 games scheduled for my field hockey and soccer teams,” Leonard said. “Do I think they’ll all be played? I don’t. I really don’t.”
Other schools continue to develop schedules in hopes their student-athletes can compete throughout the fall after having spring sports cancelled due to the pandemic.
Cross country and golf schedules were the first to be firmed up, as those sports were considered ‘lower risk” under the state’s community sports guidelines.
For the other sports, it’s been more a case of wait and see. Reduced regular-season schedules of 10 matches or less are only now being completed.
“I think it’s been difficult in the fact that schools couldn’t give everybody an answer because they wanted to to see what everything was going to look like, first from the MPA and then you had to go to your school board to get approval,” said Bunky Dow, athletic director at Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor. “Then you had to talk to your coaches, parents, teachers and everybody else to see if they were all on board with this.”
He admits there has been some frustration, even though it has been part of the process.
“There’s a saying out there that, ‘If I knew we were going to have a pandemic we would have planned better.’ I’ve used that one a lot,” Dow said.
Golf is already under way, with its abbreviated season set to conclude with individual and team state championships on Oct. 9 and 10. Plans also are in the works for state championships in cross country.
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Regular-season play in other fall sports may begin Friday, although Aroostook County games have started to account for the harvest break. But with a reduced number of contests, no MPA tournament play in soccer, field hockey and 7-on-7 football, varying degrees of preseason preparation and the last date for countable matches being Nov. 14, many schools won’t play until next week.
“If I’ve got until November 14 and I can play 10 contests, I don’t need to start on Sept. 25,” Brewer athletic administrator Dave Utterback said.
He has targeted Sept. 30 for his school’s openers in soccer and field hockey.
“I also want time to make sure I’ve got everything ready,” he said.
Those preparations include providing live streaming at high school and middle school events, as schools are allowing either no spectators or a limited audience for games given the state’s 100-person limit at outdoor gatherings.
“There are so many different things that go into scheduling in a normal year and here we had to put it together in really a matter of days,” John Bapst of Bangor athletic director and head football coach Dan O’Connell said.
Brewer couldn’t complete its schedules until learning whether neighboring Hampden Academy and Bangor would field teams. Those final decisions came last week from local school committees.
“You have to wait to see the dust settle on everybody so nobody gets left out,” Utterback said.
That cooperative spirit has been particularly noticeable in Greater Bangor where Bangor, Brewer and Hampden Academy have been adopted for the fall sports season by the Penobscot Valley Conference, which organizes athletics for most of the Class B, C and D schools in the region.
The shift of the three Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference members to the PVC is part of a statewide effort to create regionalized schedules to reduce travel.
“I think this process has really opened up people’s eyes that we can do good things if we all pull together,” Dow said.
The PVC has established several regional “pods” for other fall sports. Schools are essentially divided into Greater Bangor, Northern Penobscot, Down East, Acadia and Penquis divisions.
The KVAC has developed similar geographic divisions to address travel concerns such as reduced limits on the number of people who can ride on a school bus to accommodate social distancing.
“Every school has its own unique circumstances,” Leonard said. “As long as kids get a chance to play, that’s all I want, to give them a chance.”
Scheduling 7-on-7 football will be even more locally based. Schools have the option of playing flag or one-hand-touch football in a variety of game or scrimmage formats. They will incorporate different numbers of teams to make sure the total number of participants doesn’t exceed 100.
“It’s just in an attempt to get as many games as each program wants,” O’Connell said. “Some are looking forward to playing 7 on 7 against other schools. Some are doing it in house and then they may branch out, and others may not want to play the games at all and instead just work on player development.”
He said athletic directors in and around Penobscot County are already talking about participating in interscholastic games.