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High school sports

Failure to launch: New, veteran coaches devastated by cancellation of seasons

A handful cannot get started, others cannot continue years of leading spring student-athletes
By Mark Haskell | May 27, 2020
Artwork by: Christine Dunkle

Whether veterans of decades or gearing up for their first seasons, it has been a difficult transition for Midcoast coaches who continue to deal mentally — and, in some cases, spiritually — with the fallout of COVID-19 (coronavirus), which shut down Maine high school spring sports in mid-March before they even got started.

The on-going health concerns over the pandemic, that canceled their sports, has left athletic leaders in Knox, Waldo and Lincoln counties devastated — for a variety of reasons.

“Students being robbed of their right to an education is absolutely criminal," said Belfast girls tennis coach John Cameron, who has coached more than 30 years.

“For student-athletes, the season is an important part of their education,” said Cameron, who also assists with the varsity boys team. “Classrooms teach some things, some things students learn in the hallways and at lunch, and some things they learn through athletic practice and competition. The ‘remote learning’ is designed to address the classroom end of things, but the rest just isn't going to happen.”

Cameron said the Lion boys squad, under the guidance of head coach Scott Benzie, “was eager to defend their Northern Maine title, and I’m sure they would have done so,” while, “On the girls team a good crop of juniors would have made up the starting team and this year's experience on the court would have played well for their success in their senior year."

Now, that is “a complete unknown.”

“They need match-play experience to improve,” he said. “Turning all of this around so that students get back to a complete education is something that needs to happen, but somebody wiser than me will have to figure that out.”

Veteran Oceanside girls lacrosse coach Angie Vachon, who started the Mariner stick program and has been the varsity coach since 2014, “had high hopes for the 2020 season, even more so than normal,” despite having a young roster.

“I was looking forward to our leaders showing the way for our newest players and I am sad for our young players who have lost what would have been a great building year with that leadership,” she said. “This season being cancelled is understandable due to there being no school either, [and] I would like to think it will even the playing field for next season.”

Vachon said she believes her team “has come to terms with the loss of the season.”

“It is my hope that with the loss of this season they will be excited to do off-season work this fall/winter and as a life lesson, to not squander any opportunity ever, to do anything with your team,” she said. “As we have all learned, you never know when it could be taken away.”

She added she hopes her players — like many in successful programs in other part of the state — are using their time to better their individual games “in a fun and stress-free and pressure-free environment.”

“I am still optimistic that we can have some play at some point for our girls,” she said. “We have not met as a team [virtual or otherwise], but I do my best to keep them engaged via our Facebook page with fun drills, intrateam contests, posting videos of games past to study along with shout outs to our seniors, birthday wishes and encouragement to keep in contact with each other for support one-on-one or via a group chat.”

Vachon said her hope is to play some intrasquad games in July, when Phase 3 of Maine Governor Janet Mills’ timeline to reopen the state allows for gatherings of no more than 50 people.

“It’s unfortunate the season being cancelled,” said first-year Mount View baseball coach Brandon Hurd. “I feel for all the kids, especially the seniors who are mentally and physically preparing for their final season and to have it suddenly gone is heartbreaking. From a personal standpoint I was ready to hit the ground running and to have the reins pulled back was hard from a coach's perspective.”

Hurd has not met with his team in any capacity, with the current circumstances being “a bit of a road bump.”

“I have been encouraging kids to stay active [and] participate in as much baseball activity as you can so your bodies are getting some kind of workout,” he said. “Our goal for 2021 is to put the most fundamentally-sound, competitive baseball team on the field.”

“I really only had the job long enough to meet with a handful of the girls,” said Oceanside first-year softball coach Wes Drinkwater, who also has coached the Mariner football team since 2013. “I have reached out on Facebook to let the girls know how to contact me.”

He expressed sorrow about the lost season, but, given the circumstances, was “happily surprised” to see no seniors on the roster so no players missed out on their final opportunities to take the field.

“My intent is to coach them next year,” he said. “I’m excited. I know there’s a very good group of eighth-graders and freshman and have heard there’s a solid group of juniors and sophomores, although I don’t know many of them. So our intent going forward is to regroup and make a run at it next year.”

He added he hopes this instills a newfound appreciation in high school athletics “and we see more kids participating in all sports” and “I reach out to any kid struggling or who needs some motivation.”

Medomak Valley outdoor track-and-field coach George Gould, who has been coaching at the school 38 years and 40 overall, said “It’s a huge disappointment.”

"I was looking forward to getting out there,” said Gould, who also coaches indoor track and cross country at the school. “The first week or two, I think I was a little lost, wondering what to do and how to get through it. I don’t think we thought it was going to go on this long. We thought maybe a couple of weeks. And once you realize ‘well this is long term,’ we shifted our focus, trying to keep the kids healthy, engaged and give them some things to focus on. Not the goals we would have had, but going in a different direction.”

Gould has been spending his time proactively, “Zooming with a lot of college coaches” from different sports “and I’ve gotten a lot out of that.”

“We’ve been talking informally about their programs, about team-building, about what they look for in an athlete they’re going to recruit and just their philosophies and how they interact with their athletes,” he said. “We’re trying to have the athletes better themselves and I’m trying to better myself.”

The veteran coach added, “It’s very hard to engage with them individually with the restrictions that we have.”

“Their whole routine has been decimated,” he said. “Getting up in the morning and going to school, having practice afterwards [and] now they’re on their own. I think if they can embrace it and see there’s a life-lesson, they’ll gradually see that they are going to benefit from it in the long run.”

Gould said while specific goals are not permitted per state guidelines and through MVHS athletic director Matt Lash, the veteran coach simply tells his athletes to “try and incorporate endurance, strength and flexibility.”

“Incorporate those every day, do it for yourself, give yourself 30 minutes a day to work on your own well-being and that’s where I’ve gone with it.”

The 71-year-old Gould said his desire and passion for sports — and for youngsters — burns as bright as ever. Coronavirus be damned.

“If I had planned to stop [coaching], this wouldn’t be the way I’d want to leave, that’s for sure,” he said.

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