An agonizing wait is nearing an end, coronavirus permitting, for some Division III college basketball programs in Maine.
While the conferences that include teams from the Pine Tree State have canceled their schedules due to COVID-19 concerns, talks among several small colleges have produced a modest slate of in-state competition.
The basketball teams at Husson University in Bangor are scheduled to play at least six games each. That includes two apiece against the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the University of Maine at Fort Kent and one contest each against Maine Maritime Academy of Castine and the University of Maine at Farmington.
Husson sports information director Samantha Spargo said there could be additional games, but fans will not be allowed to attend any of its winter sports offerings because of the state-mandated 50-person limit for indoor events.
For players and coaches on teams that have been practicing since last fall with no certainty of a season, six games is better than none.
“There was a lot of optimism, and the conversations we were having as coaches were that we were going to try to do something,” Husson University men’s basketball coach Warren Caruso said, “and that’s now come full circle in that the teams that could, and had the availability, would all try to schedule each other.”
Husson opens Feb. 12 against UMPI, the men in Presque Isle and the women’s teams at Newman Gymnasium in Bangor. The teams will meet again the next day with the men in Bangor and the women in Aroostook County.
The Eagles then will be idle until single games March 6 against UMF, and March 13 against MMA, and the schedule concludes March 20-21 with doubleheaders against UMFK.
“There was nothing guaranteed,” Husson senior forward Justin Thompson said. “But coach made it seem like there was a pretty good chance that we were going to play. Obviously practicing for two months with no games anywhere in sight is tough, but knowing we would eventually get to play pushed us.”
The Husson men have not played a game in 11 months, since their Feb. 28 loss to SUNY Canton in the North Atlantic Conference semifinals.
“March, April, May and June, and a portion of July, there wasn’t even a gym open that you could get to,” Caruso said.
Students returned to campus in the fall, and Husson and other schools began formal practices on Oct. 1.
Caruso said his team got in roughly 26 practices until early December, including approximately 15 sessions that included scrimmages.
“Coach tried to get us to treat it like a regular season. For a while we couldn’t scrimmage, masks on and everything, but he still wanted us to have that same level of intensity in practice.”
The team began second-semester workouts Jan. 11, the same day the North Atlantic Conference announced that it would not conduct a schedule.
“My intuition had told me there wouldn’t be a conference schedule, but the conversations we were having on campus were that if there’s someone to play then we’ll have a schedule, so we were optimistic,” Caruso said.
One player who has been sidelined even longer than Husson’s returning players is first-year forward Isaac Varney of Glenburn. He missed the end of his senior season at Hermon High School after suffering a foot injury late last January.
“From the end of last season there was quite a gap before the college season started so I was able to heal up in the proper way,” he said. “First semester everything was up in the air so there was a lack of knowing whether there would be any games or not, but now knowing that we’ll be able to play at least some games is a good feeling.”
Caruso, in his 27th season as Husson’s head coach with a 500-239 career record, acknowledges his team’s 2021 debut will be different.
“It will look different and feel different so there will be an adjustment,” he said.
“Spring sports lost their season and fall sports lost their season, now here we are hopefully laying the groundwork for things to build in a positive manner,” Caruso said. “If we can have success in playing, just having a game, it opens the door for spring sports and as things get better with the vaccine, maybe next fall we’ll get back to normal.”