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High school sports

Wrestling season pushed to late February; winter safety criteria discussed

MPA announced move Nov. 19, organization hopes pandemic conditions improve enough to allow competition
By Mike Lowe | Nov 20, 2020

Augusta — High school wrestling meets in Maine have been pushed back to a late February start in hopes of being able to salvage the sport during the pandemic.

That news came during a meeting of the Maine Principals’ Association’s Interscholastic Management Committee on Thursday, Nov. 19.

Wrestling is the only winter sport offered by the MPA the state classifies as high-risk, which currently limits it to team-based practices with physically-distanced activities.

By delaying meets until Monday, Feb. 22, the MPA hopes pandemic conditions will have changed enough to allow for competitive matches. Competitions in other winter sports are scheduled to start no earlier than Monday, Jan. 11.

“Things would need to change in a high-risk sport to have that activity,” said Mike Burnham, the executive director of the MPA. “Come February, we’re all hoping that things have improved.”

Wrestling would be part of a tweener season — between winter sports and spring sports — that would also include indoor volleyball, which was prohibited this fall. Those sports would start Feb. 22 and conclude prior to the April vacation week.

Given that Maine limits indoor gatherings to 50 people, it is unlikely the MPA will hold state championships in most sports this winter. Instead, the association is building a two-week window into each sports season for “some sort of regional pod playoff,” said Burnham. “But we are not scheduling postseason events.”

The fate of tackle football is still to be determined, with discussions Thursday mentioning a season that would start with workouts in mid-May and possibly extend into July. MPA Assistant Executive Director Mike Bisson said the Maine Football Coaches Association has been charged with coming up with a proposal.

There had been discussion earlier this fall about possibly playing football between the winter and spring seasons.

“February and March are not realistic for football in Maine. That might work in other states, but not here,” Bisson said.

Maine’s winter sports season is scheduled to begin on Monday, Dec. 7 with individual workouts. Team practices are set to begin on Monday, Dec. 14, with games starting Monday, Jan. 11.

Even those dates are tentative.

“We all see what’s happening across the entire state with the virus and how it is increasing,” said Burnham. “We’re hoping for Dec. 7 and we’re hoping if (COVID-19) is in check, we’ll be able to get coaches and kids together … But what we approved here today was just a safe return to activities, not when it is safe, but how it is safe to return.”

The guidelines stress masks must be worn by participants at all times, except for swimmers when they are in the water. Fans will not be allowed. And schedules should be regionalized, as they were in the fall.

Wrestling can begin conditioning work on Dec. 7, assuming that date holds for the start of winter sports.

“That’s just good for kids to have some connection with coaches and other teammates,” said Wells Coach Scott Lewia, the coaches’ liaison to the MPA’s wrestling committee.

Lewia said he appreciated the MPA decided to move the wrestling season instead of canceling it.

“It was actually Mike Bisson. He didn’t want to cancel it. He wanted to move it back, give it more time,” Lewia said. “He just felt if we canceled it, we would lose a lot of kids. If there was nothing there to look forward to, you wouldn’t be starting anything in December.”

Nokomis wrestling coach Scott Preble said he was happy to hear about the potential for a season, but said not having championships would be unfulfilling.

“It would seem like an intramural sport if we don’t have championships,” he said.

Lewia said holding statewide individual state championships is unrealistic, but region-specific dual-meet tournaments, held over multiple days, could work. Maine held its first dual-meet championships last season.

Discussions during the Thursday meeting also focused on facility issues that could create problems throughout the winter. Sports such as hockey, indoor track and swimming often use college facilities. Currently, those facilities are closed. And many high school gymnasiums are being used for cafeterias or classrooms.

Competitive cheering also relies on large venues. The cheering committee has proposed holding a virtual championship, with each school submitting a video of its performance. Those would be compiled and judged.

The hockey community already has decided to divvy up ice time at rinks that are open to make sure each team has equal access.

MPA members remain optimistic the winter season can be held, buoyed by the results of a statewide survey by the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. That survey asked schools how many students participated in fall sports and how many tested positive for COVID-19. Of the 113 schools (73 percent) that responded, a total of 13,496 students participated, with only 10 positive COVID-19 cases (0.07 percent).

Dr. William Heinz, head of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee, credited the work done at schools with the low rate.

“It is hard to track some of that and report it, but if there was a really hot spot it would have shown up,” said Heinz. “The CDC watches that critically, and if there had been a hot spot, it would have shown up.

“The kids and the coaches and the staff and everyone involved have to be vigilant. You’ve got to wear a mask, and kids have proven they’re OK with that. You need to physically distance and wash your hands. The bottom line is that the kids have shown that if they want to play, they will do anything to play.”

Volleyball, which had a limited outdoor season this fall, is slated to play 10 matches over a six-week season, with possible regional playoffs at the end.

“It’s what I’ve been hoping for,” said Yarmouth volleyball coach Jim Senecal. “We’ve had so many setbacks that not everybody was confident this would go forward. And we still don’t know if it will go forward. But I’m happy with the MPA and the volleyball committee, who kept at this. They haven’t forgotten about us, and that’s important.”

The basketball season is slated to end the last Saturday in February, followed by a two-week window for regional pod tournaments. Senecal realizes some volleyball players may be involved in those games but isn’t worried.

“Yes, there may be some conflict, but we need to be flexible,” he said. “Our first two weeks should be targeted toward the conditioning of athletes who are not participating in winter sports. If you’re playing in a winter sport, you should be in shape.”

Mike Lowe is a reporter for the Portland Press Herald. Staff writer Steve Craig, along with Drew Bonifant of Central Maine Newspapers, contributed to this report.

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