Despite the warm, sunny weather, soggy fields forced Maine softball players to work out in the gym on Monday, the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers.
Nobody was complaining.
A full year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Maine Principals’ Association to cancel the spring season, the athletes, especially seniors, are thankful to be back.
“It was a 15 [on a scale of 1 to 10],” said Bangor junior pitcher Lane Barron, the smile behind her face covering unmistakeable.
“It was super exciting to get back together with everybody again and play softball,” she said.
The plan is to conduct a normal spring season, for the most part, with regional playoffs and state championship games.
Fall and winter sports in Maine were held with fewer regular-season games limited to local pods of teams. Travel was limited to smaller geographic regions.
Pod playoffs were held for basketball and hockey after many schools played only regular-season contests during the fall.
It didn’t take long for Bangor High School softball coach Don Stanhope to realize how much having a season means for his girls.
“They were an hour early to practice,” Stanhope said. “And nobody said anything about having to wear the facemasks.”
Brewer High senior Janessa Bishop attended the spring’s first practice at the Center Street gym after attending volleyball practice.
“It was a really hard workout. It was awesome,” Bishop said during a phone interview as visitors aren’t allowed in the gym.
“This gives us a lot of hope and a normal feeling going into the future, especially going to college next year,”she said.
The Witches won back-to-back state championships in Class B in 2018 and 2019, but have moved back up to Class A.
“It’s weird to get started. It has been so long,” said 16th-year Brewer head coach Skip Estes.
“I love being around the kids again,” he said.
Estes said he didn’t have much time to dwell on last year’s canceled season because he was preoccupied with COVID-19 issues at work. He manages three Gilman Electrical Supply locations.
“I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. It’s the seniors I felt bad for,” he said.
He enjoys the opportunity to go from work to practice.
“After a long day at work dealing with so many adults, walking in and dealing with kids is a whole different environment,” Estes said.
Estes is preparing for a new challenge as he has only four athletes who have played for him previously and almost half of his roster is also playing volleyball and will be doing so into April.
The players are particularly excited about having legitimate postseason playoffs instead of a pod playoff system.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Bangor High senior shortstop Jenna Smith said.
Brewer senior Sarah Kiley said the players had fun at the first practice and that it was especially nice to bond with her teammates and get reacquainted with the coaching staff.
“I love our coaches,” Kiley said.
Rae Barron, Lane’s twin sister and the Rams’ catcher, said they tried to stay busy last spring with no structured practices or games available.
“My sister and I would play catch in the backyard, but it wasn’t the same.”
“It was really sad,” Bangor senior first baseman Lydia Chase said.
Smith is thankful to have the chance to play this year in spite of missed opportunities.
“It was pretty frustrating because we would have had a real good team and we would have done some good things,” Smith said.
Stanhope said he couldn’t sleep in the days leading up to Monday’s initial practice.
“I wanted to make sure I crossed all the T’s,” he said.
He is pleased Bangor will be playing some central Maine teams in addition to the local teams.
“We’re fortunate. There are a lot of good softball teams in the area. But it will certainly be nice to play teams like Oxford Hills and Skowhegan, who are at the top of the heap,” Stanhope said.
A year later, he has seen growth in his pitchers.
“They are much stronger and more athletic. They pitch differently,” he said.