Softball and baseball championships played on a crisp fall day as the leaves change color? A full afternoon of high school football championship games at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium on a warm early summer day?
It’s possible. The state is slowly reopening from the coronavirus pandemic, and discussions are ongoing about how and when to reopen schools. While nothing has been determined yet as far as returning to school this fall, Maine athletic administrators have begun brainstorming ways to ensure any return to classrooms also includes a return to sports for high school athletes.
David Utterback, the athletic director at Brewer High, recently crafted a plan that would restructure Maine’s high school sports seasons, in an effort to help schools adhere to safety guidelines recommended by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Most notably, Utterback suggests that the Maine Principals’ Association consider moving baseball and softball from spring to fall, and football and soccer from fall to spring.
“We’d like to offer what we can offer safely,” Utterback said.
Maine is not alone in tossing around creative ideas to get sports up and running this fall, assuming that students are back in classrooms. States across the country are having similar discussions. Athletic directors in Maine’s neighbors in northern New England – Vermont and New Hampshire – have consulted with their counterparts in nearby states.
“We have a task force on a fall return to sports,” said Mike Desilets, the athletic director at Bow High School in New Hampshire and the president of the New Hampshire Athletic Directors Association. “We want to stay ahead, stay prepared for whatever might happen.”
“I don’t think there’s a state out there that hasn’t had that conversation,” said MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham, noting that right now it’s “nothing more than conversation.”
Burnham noted that Utterback had “put in a tremendous amount of work,” on what a plan for switching sport seasons would look like but reiterated that it’s the MPA’s goal to have a traditional fall season, with preseason starting Aug. 17 for football, soccer, field hockey, cross country, girls’ volleyball and golf.
“If it’s the only way for us to save a season, that’s when the conversation (of switching seasons) is worth having,” Burnham said.
Burnham said the MPA’s own guidelines for resumption of activities are likely to be released this week. They will be structured around the usual fall sports and are being designed in consultation with school superintendents, administrative leaders and the Maine Department of Education, and will include a detailed plan for how to handle activities in July. Plans for August would come at a later date.
Whenever traditional classes resume, athletic directors not just in Maine but across the nation agree that sports and extracurricular activities are an important augment to the academic experience.
“Just like everybody, we’re watching the data,” said Geri Witalec-Krupa, athletic director at Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, Vermont. Witalec-Krupa also serves as Vermont’s liaison to the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. “If we have any form of in-person learning, we have to provide sports in the fall.”
Maine athletes lost the spring season to the coronavirus outbreak. As plans to reopen schools are evaluated, Utterback decided he should be proactive and develop a return-to-sports model that takes into account the guidelines provided last month by the NFHS.
The NFHS divided sports into three groups. Those that can be played individually or using social distancing are categorized as lower risk. Sports that involve some close contact, but with protective equipment, are considered moderate risk. Sports with sustained contact and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants are in the higher risk category.
With those guidelines in mind, Utterback’s proposal shifts football, considered a high-risk sport, and soccer, a moderate-risk sport, to next spring.
“Are people going to be OK with fall sports as we know them? Obviously, there’s going to be concerns,” Utterback said.
Utterback’s proposal begins with with moving baseball and softball from spring to fall, with throwing workouts to build up arm strength starting on Aug. 2. Golf would also begin on Aug. 2, with matches starting Aug. 10. On Aug. 17, traditional fall sports field hockey and cross country would begin preseason, along with tennis, which would move from the spring.
Utterback’s plan would divide the winter sports season into two groups. Winter I would begin in late November, the typical starting time for the season, with basketball, hockey, skiing, swimming and indoor track.
A Winter II season would commence on Feb. 1, with wrestling, girls’ volleyball and competition cheerleading. By starting those sports near the end of the basketball season, gym time should be more readily available.
Utterback’s plan also would divide spring sports into two seasons. Beginning March 29, Spring I would feature lacrosse and track and field. Spring II would begin in late April, with football and soccer.
Utterback stressed that his idea is just that, an idea. While superintendents work with the state to form a plan to get schools open, having no backup plan for sports would be disastrous for Maine high school athletes, Utterback said.
“It’s better than the alternative, which is cancellation (of another season),” Utterback said.
Burnham said the concept of a revised sports calendar has reached coaches and athletic directors, and that MPA officials have begun to get feedback.
“We’re hearing all the responses to it before it’s even out there as a viable option, but people are talking about it,” Burnham said.
Flipping the seasons for some sports creates a number of questions that would need to be answered.
Athletes who play multiple sports might be forced to choose between sports that are currently in different seasons but would overlap under Utterback’s plan, such as those who participate in both football and lacrosse, or football and track and field, or field hockey and softball. The same could be true for those who coach multiple sports.
Skowhegan Athletic Director Jon Christopher said schools with artificial turf field could easily play football or soccer in the spring. The majority of schools that play on grass, however, would run the risk of having to practice and play on wet fields as they thaw in the spring.
“With field conditions the way they typically are in the spring, we would destroy wet fields if we played football, soccer, etc. in the spring,” Christopher said in a text message.
In New Hampshire, asking schools to purchase new protective shields to add to high school football face masks, no matter when the sport is played, is a concern, Desilets said.
“If we get to the point where we have to put a face shield on every helmet, I don’t think we can do that,” Desilets said.
In Vermont, the idea of flip-flopping fall and spring seasons has not received much support, Witalec-Krupa said. Many Vermont high schools share fields with town recreation departments. Would town rec programs be expected to flip seasons, too? Would towns be asked to cede time on fields normally used by youth sports programs to high school teams?
“We’d be taking out a lot of sports to play one,” Witalec-Krupa said.
Playing some sports deemed lower risk for coronavirus transmission while shelving others for the 2020-21 school year is a possibility, but an option that comes with its own questions. How would a school deal with having two or three times the usual number of students sign up for sports like golf or cross country if other sports options are unavailable? And even if all sports are offered, what happens if more students choose a sport considered a safer option?
“Are we prepared for an influx of students who say ‘Hey, I want to play varsity golf,’” Witalec-Krupa said.
There are factors at play that nobody can predict or control. In Ohio, for example, where a flip-flop of the fall and spring sports seasons has been proposed, concerns were raised about spring sports athletes possibly losing a second consecutive season if the pandemic causes schools to close again this fall.
New Hampshire has discussed having intramural sports in each school if varsity play isn’t feasible in the fall. In Vermont, skill sessions with varsity coaches is an option in lieu of a season. Like in Maine, any idea short of a regular varsity season is considered a last resort.
Utterback hopes his proposal can be a starting point for discussions on getting high school sports up and running safely.
“You can’t wait until the end of July or mid-August,” Utterback said. “If we can provide the DOE and CDC information, this will help make decisions.”
As the state examines coronavirus data, which seems to change weekly, athletic directors, coaches, parents and especially student athletes hope for a return to sports in the fall. Even if it looks a little different than usual.
Staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.