The job of an athletic director, amid the choppy, unpredictable waters they have been forced to navigate since March when COVID-19 became a seemingly never-ending fixture, has been anything but smooth sailing.

Many are former coaches. Former players. Lovers of sports from basketball to badminton and everything in-between. And all of which, on one level or another, aspire to the same goal, namely, to give youngsters the opportunity to compete.

Now, ADs, who often are found making athletic schedules and dealing with the ins and outs of a school’s sports teams, players, coaches and parents, find themselves out of the forefront.

And, like many, they await updates from the Maine Principals’ Association, various state agencies and even their own district's school boards, as to how athletics at the high school level will continue to function.

It makes many harken to simpler times.

“I’d like to go back to having somebody yell at me because we didn’t play soccer in the rain,” said Oceanside athletic director Molly Bishop Harriman. “Or why are you playing soccer in the rain?”

The MPA has unveiled its guidelines for winter sports in Maine, which will make hard-nosed competition, even under the best of circumstances, arduous.

All sports other than swimming — for obvious reasons — will require face masks be wore at all times, including during competition. Fans will not be permitted. Schedules will be region-based. And, in likelihood, there will be no postseason for winter sports.

“I think the kids have lost a lot already,” said Belfast athletic director Matt Battani, in his first year in the position and who has never operated the Lion sports program during non-pandemic time. “They’ve lost stuff last spring, over the summer, personal freedom. All the loss that we’ve all experienced because of COVID. We want those losses to stop.”

But, there is only so much that can be done. Often, the athletic directors are forced to be the bearer of bad news to students, coaches and parents, with those directives coming from the state levels.

Several ADs, most recently this fall, had to relay to their cross-country teams they could not participate in postseason meets.

Belfast and Medomak Valley were forced to drop out of the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B cross-country championships. The Lions due to Waldo County moving into the "yellow" designation (they have since moved back to "green") and the Panthers due to their school suspending sports for a minimum of a 14-day quarantine due to multiple positive tests within Regional School Unit 40.

MVHS athletic director Matt Lash called delivering that news to his cross-country runners “excruciating.”

“I’ve been doing this for 18 years,” he said. “And then having to have that virtual meeting with cross country two days before KVACs and having to share that news was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. To see their faces and disappointment. And the same for coach [George] Gould. These are things generally you don’t have to do.”

Harriman had to do the same days later to a student-athlete that competed in the KVAC race and qualified for the state race, but Knox County’s designation also went from "green" to "yellow" before all state championship races eventually were canceled.

The color designations are based on an assessment of data and trends by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, with "green" meaning low risk, "yellow" elevated risk and "red" high risk.

“It’s excruciating,” Harriman said. “To have to tell a senior athlete that their season is all done? Or to have to tell a cross-country runner that they can’t run in the state championship meet that’s worked really hard to earn the opportunity to go do? That’s pretty painful.”

Camden Hills athletic director Jeff Hart was forced to deliver the same for his girls cross-country team, who, by virtue of their strong showing at the KVAC Class A championships, qualified as a group for the state championships.

Jeff Hart said despite qualifying, before hearing that news, the Windjammer girls were “very conflicted” about competing in the state event.

“Our girls were very, very competitive and even they were conflicted when they got around to the possibility of the state meet and traveling further on a bus than they’ve been,” he said. “They want to do it, but they didn’t know if it’d be the right thing to be doing. And nervousness around it to be honest. We all think about the kids as ‘Well they just want to play and that’s all they think about,’ but I don’t think that is the truth. They’re very cognizant of what’s going on around them.”

Of course, Jeff Hart, and others, also had to be the bearer of bad news when school officials had to tell other fall sports teams, such as soccer, football and field hockey, the school would not compete in interscholastic competition. That was made more difficult, perhaps, because the girls soccer program had won the previous four state Class A titles and had an unbeaten streak of nearly 70 games over multiple seasons.

By and large, athletic directors are planners. And for many, their inability to make plans over the past several months — from setting a schedule for games to lining up buses — has been a difficult mental hurdle to clear.

“The rule as an athletic director or athletic administrator is you’re always looking to solve the problems,” said Searsport athletic director Chris Hart. “You’re looking to make it so, no matter what, these kids have an opportunity to play. If it’s raining it’s, ‘Well I have to get out on the fields and make them playable’ or ‘We can’t play today so now we’re looking at the best possible day to make sure these kids still get that opportunity’ and things like that. And the pandemic has really thrown us a curveball because there are so many unknowns.”

“Lots of times we have schedules done a year in advance,” said Lash. “Generally speaking things don’t change a whole lot. Maybe one date every year. And here we are, day by day and at the very least, week by week, going forward. And, when and if we have a winter season, it’s literally going to be week to week as to whether or not certain counties or schools know if they can practice or play.”

“We’ve got scenarios and speculation, but it’s so rare now that we can get to the meat of it,” said Harriman. “And then when you do, we have to cancel it anyway. Like a lot of your work is just getting undone. But you’ve got to do the work because you want to make sure the kids have the opportunity. It feels like [the movie] 'Groundhog Day.' ”

While athletic directors typically are tasked with keeping team personnel in the loop, some are realizing they are no longer the gatekeepers to that information for their student-athletes.

“As the pandemic has gone on, they are reading and receiving the guidelines as fast as I am,” said Battani. “It’s kind of evolved to I’m not really there giving them the information anymore. We’re all getting it at the same time. And I think that speaks to how well folks over the last few months have learned to cope better and better with this pandemic. More and more people are checking the COVID numbers every day and checking the county designations and receiving updates from the state and MPA. I think the communication over time has become so much more clear than it was at the beginning of the pandemic.”

Now, ADs prepare for the likelihood of a winter sports season. Including Lash, despite the fact that Medomak Valley High School is doing remote learning until Feb. 1.

Lash said: “We’re not remote right now because of COVID, which is another reason why doing sports at this moment is on the table.”

“The biggest reason we are remote right now is during the time we were remote due to an outbreak, the educational leaders, teachers and even kids found they were having more instruction time and better instruction time being remote than in-house because of the hybrid schedule plus the blue/gold schedule,” he said. “There were kids that were literally not having a particular teacher for 10-14 days because of the way the schedule worked.”

Many school boards and administrations will meet to determine whether their teams will participate under the MPA’s return-to-sports guidelines.

While nothing officially has been finalized, barring unforeseen circumstances, most plan to move forward with practices in the coming weeks.

Maine’s winter sports season is scheduled to begin on Monday, Dec. 7 with individual workouts. Team practices are set to begin on Monday, Jan. 4. Tentatively, competition would begin no earlier than Monday, Jan. 11 for all winter sports other than wrestling, which cannot begin until Saturday, Feb. 22.

Of course, recent consistent positive coronavirus spikes in counties across the state — including Knox, Lincoln and Waldo — may force the winter season and student-athlete activities to be pushed back or altered, especially if a county has its color code switched from "green" to "yellow" or "red."

Battani suggested alternative activities in the winter‚ such as snowshoeing, hiking, skiing and pond hockey or broom ball. These could be direct team activities, team-building exercises or conditioning.

“We’re planning to do both," he said. "The traditional and some of the non-traditional.”

Until then, most everyone is looking toward the likelihood of a winter sports season, with open minds and cautious optimism.

“It’s going to be a tough winter,” said Jeff Hart. “I don’t have any doubt about it. And that mirrors what’s going on across the country with the virus.”