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Game on: High school spring sports have returned in Maine

After the 2020 spring season was canceled, Maine student-athletes are now on the field, court, diamond, and track. Practices began Monday

AUGUSTA, Maine — For anyone with even a slight association with high school sports in Maine, last spring will be hard to forget. After the season was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, student-athletes were sidelined for months. 

Now, teams are back on the field, court, track, and diamond. Practices began Monday and the first games could be played April 15.

“All of us have been building our own playbooks, if you will, to get kids back on the field," Thornton Academy Athletic Administrator Gary Stevens said.

Stevens helped organize the Pandemic Project Task Force when COVID-19 first began to affect high school sports last spring. The biweekly meetings were a way for athletic directors, officials, and coaches to bounce return-to-play ideas off each other.

The meetings grew to include people from all over the country and the platform has evolved from a virtual meeting to a podcast.

Mike Archer, the Orono High School athletic director, said he has worked constantly with other administrators so his student-athletes are able to play a full season of games, including playoffs.

“As much as we’ve wanted to try to be proactive as athletic administrators, much of this has been reactive," he said. 

When it comes to post-season play, the Maine Principals Association says all teams will make the playoffs in all sports -- a big change from past years.

There will still be COVID-19 safety guidelines in place for this season, just as in the fall and winter.

Those guidelines add an extra challenge for schools even before games get underway since social distancing must be followed on busses.

“I think transportation is the lynchpin for the whole process," Stevens said.

Archer agreed.

Larger schools with big track teams -- some as large as 100 kids -- will have the biggest transportation issue.

Stevens said his school's conference is going to schedule baseball and softball doubleheaders on weekends to ease the bus schedule, which includes daily afterschool routes.

“Now we have to cross our fingers that it doesn’t rain on Saturday because that could really dampen our planning," he added.

Some of the consistent guidelines are not surprising. All athletes, coaches, staff, officials, and spectators are required to wear face coverings during games and practices.

“If it takes wearing a mask to be able to compete, [the student-athletes] are certainly willing to do that," Archer said.

Spectators must maintain six feet of space between each other and athletes unless they are household members.

The MPA's return-to-play guidelines also include reminders about the state's increase in capacity limits. Effective March 26, 75 percent of permitted occupancy is allowed at outdoor events like games or practices.

Effective May 24, the capacity will be restored to 100 percent of the permitted occupancy of the facility. 

All student-athletes, coaches, staff, and officials must complete and pass COVID-19 self-screening questions before events. 

There will be no pregame introductions this season. Pregame conferences will be limited to a select number of officials, head coaches, and a single captain from each team. And teams will not shake hands before or after games, instead using a "good sportsmanship wave."

The guidelines "prohibit necessary physical contact, such as high fives, handshakes, fist bumps, chest bumps, hugs, or team huddles." There is to be no chanting or singing from the bench area or sidelines.

Shared equipment should be sanitized frequently.

Other guidelines are sport-specific:

Baseball / Softball

Team areas may be expanded for players only toward the foul pole area, away from home plate. The MPA guidelines state that area should be clearly marked as out of bounds and protected by a screen or fence.

Each dugout should have sanitizer available, and schools are expected to maximize the number of bench seats per team, limit the number of bench personnel, and require face coverings to be worn at all times unless hydrating.

During the game, all players, spectators, and coaches must wear masks and the MPA is recommending all game personnel sanitize their hands after each half-inning.

Bats, batting helmets, catcher's gear, and other shared equipment should be sanitized on a regular basis, the guidelines state.

If a pitcher wants to wet their fingers before a throw, they must use a damp cloth, not white or grey, and keep it in their back pocket. Pitchers may not use their mouths to wet their fingers.

The guidelines also state the plate umpire will call balls and strikes from behind the mound.

Transportation to and from games or practices requires attention, according to the guidelines. Ventilation should be utilized if players are using carpools to get to events. If buses are used, individuals should spread out as much as possible. 

Postseason: Baseball and softball regional play-in games will begin on June 5 with the opening games beginning on June 8. Regional finals will be played on June 15 with state championships being held June 19.

Lacrosse

Team areas may be expanded toward the goal line to promote physical distancing. All bench personnel is required to wear a mask unless they're hydrating.

Players are recommended to keep their mouth guards in throughout the game or practice, the guidelines state. If the mouth guard is taken out, the player's hands should be washed or disinfected before continuing to play.

The officials' table will be limited to a home team scorer and timer. Visiting team personnel may need to find an alternative location. 

Ball runners replacing balls on the end line or sideline must be masked during play. Teams are responsible for retrieving balls on the bench side of the field.

It is recommended that the substitution box use markings to mark and maintain physical distancing during substitutions or penalties.

For girls' games, only one player will be on each hash on an eight-meter setup.

Recommendations for transportation include opening bus windows if possible; everyone riding must wear masks, and the number of people on one bus should be maximized while also maximizing the distance between individuals.

Postseason: Regional quarterfinal games begin June 9. Regional finals will be played on June 15 and state championships will be played on June 19. 

Outdoor Track

Outdoor track, unlike baseball, softball, and lacrosse, is considered a "lower risk" activity.

Distancing must be kept before and during events with all participants wearing masks. For throwing events, athletes can provide their own implements and retrieve them after each throw.

Meet directors are encouraged to clean the mats during jumping events like high jump and pole vault.

Running events must use every other lane to assist in physical distancing guidelines. After a race, student-athletes must return to their team area. 

For relay events, gloves will be permitted this year. Schools can bring their own batons and they must be cleaned and disinfected after each race. Relay runners must wash their hands or use sanitizer before and after the race.

Schools should prioritize space when transporting teams to events. Like other sports, bus windows should be open if the weather allows, and masks must be worn by everyone on the bus.

Postseason: State championship meets will be on June 5.

Tennis

Tennis is also labeled a "lower risk" activity in the community sports guidelines. 

Team areas must provide enough spacing for student-athletes and bench personnel to maintain proper physical distancing. All participants and coaches must be masked while in the bench area.

Before matches, teams should align on opposite baselines of the court while coaches introduce their lineup.

Players will step forward and acknowledge their opponent with a "good sportsmanship wave," according to the guidelines.

During matches, the home team is responsible for providing a new can of tennis balls for each match. Only the home teams will update the scorecards.

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Players must not cross their opponent when switching sides of the court during the match. Players should not touch the balls with their hands when returning balls to an adjacent court. They should use their racket.

Players may not wipe their sweat with the tennis ball.

If busses are used to get to and from matches, physical distancing is encouraged and the use of carpools should be limited. 

Postseason: Regional singles qualifying rounds being May 8 with the championship round of 52 starting May 21. The regional team opening round begins June 1. State team championships will be held on June 12.