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Life in limbo: Uncharted waters for spring high school coaches, athletes

With Maine baseball, softball, track, lacrosse, tennis put on hold, Midcoast residents wait and wonder
By Mark Haskell | Mar 23, 2020
Artwork by: Christine Dunkle COVID-19, or coronavirus, has put high school spring sports on hold and left coaches and student-athletes wondering what the future holds.

As most continue to float further into uncharted waters with COVID-19 — or coronavirus as it is more commonly known — spanning the globe as it affects millions of people, those young and old continue to be flummoxed by how their daily lives are altered.

Particularly — in relation to this story — is how Midcost coaches and student-athletes have been forced to come to grips with the Maine Principals’ Association’s decision on Friday, March 13 to, for now, delay the start of the high school spring sports season by 30 days, with the targeted start date on Monday, April 27.

However, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and high-ranking government officials continue to collect additional relevant information as to how the coronavirus will affect us, the likelihood that the spring sports season is canceled looms for student-athletes, coaches and fans in the Midcoast, and, on much larger scales, Maine, the country and world.

That means, for the foreseeable future, high school baseball and softball players will not be on the diamonds, or in their dugouts. Tennis players may, for the time being, stow their rackets back in their closets, as will lacrosse players their sticks.

And track-and-field standouts will be forced to run, hurdle and throw in the comfort of their own backyards, away from their familiar schools and practice facilities.

Schools closed

Then, on Sunday, March 16, the seismic shift continued as many schools throughout the state — including all in the Midcoast — made announcements schools will be closed for the foreseeable future, at a minimum of two weeks, while some have planned longer absences.

As of Monday, March 23, 107 Maine residents — most in the southern part of the state, but one in Knox County, five in Lincoln County and none in Waldo County (there could be seasonal residents who are here, diagnosed here, and staying here ill but they are not in the Center for Disease Control figures. Those people would be counted in their home states.) — had been confirmed positive and others presumed positive for the coronavirus.

Additionally, Governor Janet Mills has closed eateries statewide from dine-in service and has banned gatherings of more than 10 people.

“As a school teacher, I am strongly in favor of school being cancelled” said Belfast baseball coach Chris Lavalle, who also teaches at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast. “Although as a teacher, I also know that school is not cancelled, but rather being held remotely. My colleagues and I, and countless others around the state and nation, have worked really hard to make sure that school will continue and students can continue receiving their educations. Closing school might not be ideal, but I truly think that student and staff safety has to be the priority.”

“I understand why the schools have closed,” said Mount View track-and-field coach and science teacher Kevin “Gus” Petrak. “Hopefully the means will come to the desired end. The delay of the spring sports season is disappointing. I especially feel for our seniors, who will maybe have an abbreviated final season. That said, I also understand the need for distancing with communicable diseases. If the season does start in late-April, we will have to see how bringing people together works at that point.”

“I think it was inevitable [for schools] to close,” said Medomak Valley softball coach Richard Vannah. “Only makes sense. We will be very lucky to have a season at all. I think it will matter if they extend the school year as to whether or not we have a season. Isn’t much we can do about this pandemic, but I feel bad for my girls."

In the realm of athletics, the adjustment for student-athletes and coaches — as it has been for others — has been jarring.

“When I first heard of the sports season being pushed back, I instantly texted my coach to make sure it was true and I was hoping it was just a rumor,” said Medomak Valley senior softball player Kayla Donlin. “But when he texted back saying it’s true my heart sunk. I couldn’t believe it.”

“The decision to push back the start of practices until late April is the right decision, and I am glad the MPA decided to delay and see where we stand with this situation in a few weeks instead of just cancelling the season outright,” said Oceanside baseball coach Don Shields.

“This is certainly a challenging time to be a track-and-field coach,” said longtime Medomak Valley coach George Gould. “I don’t really know what this season will look like. I don’t even know if there will be a season.”

Athletes feel impact

The news has been particularly disappointing for the high school seniors, who hold out hope they will be able to represent their schools in the realm of athletic competition — in some way, shape or form — one final season before graduation.

“I love baseball so much and it’s my senior year,” said Mount View baseball player Noah Jacobs. “All I want to do right now is play baseball. When I first found out about it I was at school and I got kind of mad because the thought of playing baseball was what was getting me through the senioritis, and all I wanted to do was play.”

"I was very disappointed to hear that the season was pushed back to the end of April, especially since it's my senior year,” said Camden Hills softball player Grace O’Connell. “Although this isn’t ideal, I think that the MPA made the right decision to prioritize the safety of the student-athletes and the community.”

At first glance, the initial reaction by many high school student-athletes to the MPA’s decision was met with resistance. But, as the news cycles continue to churn out more information on the potentially real severity of the situation, many have changed their stance.

“My initial reaction to the season suspension was that it really was too bad and what would just a game of high schoolers do to make the situation worse? Over time I realized the problem was only getting worse rapidly,” said Mount View baseball player Draedyn Furrow. “I began to understand the decision and I also realized it just gave me more time to work on my game prior to the season. With other organizations closing it just made me realize how big the situation is and how big the decision was for the MPA to suspend the season.”

“When I first heard the news, I thought it was ridiculous and unfair,” said Medomak Valley senior Colby Verrill-Hyde, who planned to try out for the tennis team for the first time this spring. “But as I realized that so many schools around the state were preparing to close, I knew that it was probably the right thing to do as lots of kids get to practice by staying after school and teams meeting could create a spread from school to school.”

“I think that since more and more places are shutting down that this virus is bigger than we all think it is,” said Jacobs. “And we should take it more serious than some people have been.”

“I understand that they are doing this to keep us healthy and safe and to try their best to stop the spread of the virus, but it makes me sad. Us players will have to wait a while to be able to play again,” said Oceanside junior softball player Jessica Watkinson.

Upset, then understanding

“When I first heard the news I was pretty upset, the main thing I was thinking about was what I was going to do,” said Medomak Valley baseball player Isaac McCollett. “As I started thinking about it, I realized that it’s only for the best. If you happen to see all of the stores and restaurants closing down, it shows you that this virus isn’t a joke. I miss baseball and hope that we get to play the season, but most of all I want to be safe.”

If the spring seasons are to proceed, at some point, the focus would not only shift to the safety of the student-athletes, but to the dozens — and often as playoffs and state championship events attract — hundreds of fans congregating at one event.

“One argument for canceling the season would be to avoid the large meets, where we bring people from all around the state, and [in the case of New Englands] around the country,” said Petrak. “If the virus is to stick around for another few months, it is common sense that these gatherings should not happen.”

The Maine Principals’ Association also has announced that from now until April 27, spring sports teams cannot participate in any official team activities and that “there should be no expectation that athletes participate in any type of organized training program.”

That includes captain’s practices, where players practice without a coach present.

For some coaches, that is a non-issue.

“My girls stay pretty busy in the offseason anyway. A lot only play softball. They do a lot on their own, I don’t have to ask," Vannah said.

For others, such as Camden Hills softball coach Rowena Motylewski, “It challenges me to absolutely maximize the short amount of time I will have with them.”

“This time off forces me to reevaluate and get creative about preparing athletes for the upcoming season,” she said.

“It is going to make our job tougher then normal,” said Searsport baseball coach John Frye. “It’s going to put a lot of stress on the pitching arms. We use that preseason to get our pitchers stretched out and to work on mechanical things. But we do understand this is necessary for the well-being of our student-athletes, fans and coaches.”

“I think all coaches will agree, it will be up to the individual players to throw and run and stay in shape, so they are ready to go if we can play later in the spring,” said Shields. "We've never been here before, so I'm not sure we can do anything other than be patient.”

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