Eighteen months since leaving the place where my love for high school sports was born and blossomed, then jumping into that scene in a different part of the country, I continue to be amazed at how differently student-athletics are managed outside my native Maine.
I’m not saying that one way is always right or that the other is always wrong. Just … so, so different.
This reality was reinforced late Friday night, after I returned home from watching a steel cage match between two of Kentucky’s top five boys’ basketball teams. People move and evolve, but their emotional investment to the past doesn’t fade into oblivion. After retrieving a cold beverage, I sat down with my laptop and searched for scores from what I thought was opening night of the Pine Tree State winter sports season.
Of course, I discovered that despite the calendar already having advanced to December, your first countable basketball games were still a week away. Which tickled the funny bone, since the boys’ and girls’ programs here already have two regular-season games under their belt and will play two more before their northern counterparts tip off.
Basketball workouts in Kentucky start more than a month earlier (Oct. 15), and the state tournaments — girls and boys presented separately — end almost a month later, in March. And that merely scratches the surface of the manner in which the games are played and adjudicated differently here in the mid-south.
Some of it will sound like additional fodder for those of you who find Maine Principals’ Association restrictions overly officious. Others among you will see excess and be thankful that your way of life affords more family time and an opportunity to recuperate from one season to the next. And again, I don’t think either side is completely off-base.
The major variations between Vacationland and the Bluegrass:
1. School in the south starts the second week of August, and games begin shortly thereafter. This one seems like it should be the other way around, doesn’t it? It tends to be 1,000 degrees for opening night football and soccer in Kentucky, and the final November games in Maine are often brutally cold.
Adjust everything even two weeks earlier, and Maine could enjoy a longer basketball and hockey season. Even if you didn’t add games, coaches would be giddy about not having to cram one-third of their schedule into two weeks before Christmas, all starting before they can even get a double-digit number of practices under their belt.
The obstacle to this one – as it is for just about all the things I’ve observed – is that so many teachers, coaches and parents find summer vacation sacred. And where that season up nawth is typically no longer than a hiccup-and-a-half, I hardly blame them.
2. Schedules here are longer. Substantially longer. Baseball, softball and basketball teams play 30 or more games before the playoffs start. Football’s regular season is 10 games compared to eight, with five rounds of playoffs.
There is also more freedom to weight your own schedule and set your own bar within that system. Conferences are called “districts” in Kentucky. They are hyper-regional, with no regard for school enrollment, and are limited to four or five teams. Other than your requirement to take on those rivals, you are free to arrange the rest of your itinerary as you see fit. If you wish to face a team from Ohio, Texas, Florida, Tennessee or Australia, you are welcome to do so, and the games count toward your record.
Maine’s supposedly unique geographical obstacles have been cited as a reason this kind of thing wouldn’t work up there, but that feels like a convenient excuse for people who don’t want to travel. Kentucky’s east-west transportation issues are similar to Maine’s north-to-south vastness, not counting snow and ice, and both states have an large geographical area that is dying due to a shrinking industry (pulp and paper vs. coal).
3. Seasons overlap here, and coaches are given much more freedom to host legal, out-of-season workouts. The football team in my city lost in the football state semifinals. Had it won and advanced to the title game, boys’ basketball would have been without four key players — one of whom has a Division I hoops scholarship in his pocket — for two countable games. The same thing will happen in March when those four athletes and a few of their teammates miss the start of baseball and track and field season.
It’s an arrangement that would seem to discourage multi-sport athletes, yet as you can see from at least my own anecdotal experience, it doesn’t. But don’t jump down the MPA’s throat for keeping its seasons separate and plausibly equal. Maine’s sanctioning body deals with different weather and its own culture. So many schools in rural Maine already wrestle with plummeting enrollment and declining sports participation. Blurring the lines between seasons would only exacerbate the issues.
4. One state, one champ. With the notable exceptions of football (which awards six champions out of roughly 200 teams) and track and cross country (three divisions), Kentucky’s state tournaments are all-class affairs. Mainers who clamored for a basketball final four involving the champs from the old Class A-B-C-D system would be in heaven.
Again, though, the vast variation in culture is almost impossible to quantify. District and region championships are equivalent to state titles in most folks’ minds. Small schools in Kentucky are so smitten by the tradition of competing for an off chance to play one game at Rupp Arena or Whitaker Bank Ballpark (think Hadlock Field) that they’re nonplussed when schools larger than satellite college campuses almost always win the ultimate prize.
I’m a supporter of both systems. Kentucky’s system works for Kentucky, and Maine’s system – despite some super fans’ eagerness to use the kids as a commodity – works for Maine. I’ve always liked the idea that Dirigo or Valley basketball and Richmond or Maranacook soccer could call itself a state champion without having to worry about Portland, Scarborough or Lewiston. There should be a reward for beating the teams your own size that doesn’t feel like a consolation prize.
The ultimate lesson here: High school sports are a blast to play and a pleasure to watch, regardless of how they’re presented. And our window for enjoying them on either side of the lines is painfully short.
Celebrate these next three months, wherever you are.
Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports staff. He is currently editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him at [email protected] or on Twitter @Oaksie72.