This year’s high school spring sports postseason will feature a new wrinkle in several disciplines to compensate for any cancellations resulting from the coronavirus pandemic — open tournaments.
Individual sports committees of the Maine Principals’ Association have approved a change for 2021 that will allow for inviting all teams participating in baseball, softball, lacrosse and tennis to advance to the playoffs if they wish.
Normally, the top two-thirds of the teams in each regional class qualify for postseason play based on the Heal Point standings.
Teams still will be seeded according to Heal Points, but the divisor used will be based on the number of games each team plays, with a maximum of 16 games in baseball and softball and 12 matches in tennis and lacrosse.
Because COVID-19 situations could affect the ability of teams to play their full schedules, there will be no minimum number of games for any team this spring if cancellations are necessary.
“The decision to look at open tournaments was very much driven by knowing that there’s going to be some geographic scheduling and knowing that some schools may not be able to play full seasons,” said Mike Burnham, MPA interscholastic executive director. “The question came down to how could we make this season equitable for all as they deal with the coronavirus pandemic?”
Last year, COVID-19 resulted in the cancellation of all spring high school sports in Maine.
Play-in games when needed in divisions with more than 16 schools, along with a Round of 16, regional quarterfinals and semifinals in each sport, will be played at the home sites of the higher-seeded teams. Regional finals and state championship matches will continue to be played at neutral sites.
Teams also may opt out of postseason play in those sports without penalty by informing the MPA of their decision prior to the start of the tournament.
“The open tournament came about for two reasons,” Burnham said, “one being if a school has to shut down its season because of an outbreak then they’re not penalized in the final Heal Points and the divisor is adjusted.
“The other reason is because schools continue to face challenges with transportation.”
That transportation challenge has stemmed from the physical distancing required on buses that has meant that more buses are needed to transport teams to and from games, leading to a corresponding shortage of bus drivers in many communities.
Among other changes being made to facilitate a spring high school sports season, the home plate umpire in baseball games will work from behind the pitcher’s mound while the home plate umpire in softball will work from behind the plate but stand 6 feet behind the catcher.
Both moves are designed to comply with physical distancing directives.
MPA committees also have developed for each sport a “Recommendation for Return to Play,” which incorporates orders and guidelines established by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the Governor’s office, the Maine Department of Education, the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and the MPA Sports Medicine Committee.
“Those agencies provided us great feedback, and then every one of the spring sport committee then came back in to look at their recommendations and come up with these final documents,” Burnham said.
Among the guidelines to be used for each spring sport is managing the number of people who gather at contests. That includes athletes, coaches, officials, staff and spectators.
Limits will be based on Gov. Janet Mills’ March 4 executive order that amended previous mass-gathering limits related to the pandemic. For indoor events through May 23, 50 percent of the permitted occupancy of a venue, or 50 people total, whichever is greater, may now attend.
As of May 24, that limit increases to 75 percent of permitted occupancy or 50 persons, whichever is greater.
For outdoor events through May 23, attendance allowed will be up to 75 percent of permitted occupancy, while as of May 24 that number will increase to 100 percent of permitted occupancy.
Spectators will be required to abide by physical distancing guidelines, and all who attend or participate in a high school sporting event must wear facemasks at all times, according to the return-to-play documents.
The high school sports season is scheduled to extend through June 20.