The Maine Principals’ Association is removing some hurdles for Maine high school athletes looking to compete at regional and national events.

State legislators and the Maine Principals’ Association reached a handshake agreement earlier this week designed to give athletes more opportunities to compete at elite events and have their coaches coach them.

Mt. Ararat High School’s Lisandro Berry-Gaviria took first place in the Class A North regional championships in Belfast in October. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The agreement provides two waivers per season for each athlete to the bona fide team rule. Athletes had previously been granted one waiver per season.

The agreement also allows coaches to attend elite events with athletes and to assist them at the events. It permits skiers and their coaches to attend all four Eastern Cup races without use of a waiver, and directs the MPA to outline these rule changes to coaches and athletic directors in its annual bulletins.

The agreement does not require schools to provide funding for athletes to travel to and compete in the events or for their coaches to accompany them.

As a result of the agreement, the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs killed a bill (LD 395), on the recommendation of co-sponsor Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) that would have eliminated some MPA restrictions on athletes and coaches.

“Many bills are an opportunity to solve a problem without legislation, and that’s what we’ve accomplished here,” said Berry, who first encountered the MPA rules when his son, Lisandro Berry-Gaviria, a state champion cross country runner for Mt. Ararat, prepared to compete at nationals last December. “I’m very pleased with the outcome.”

Leavitt Nordic skiing and cross country coach Dustin Williamson, a liaison to the MPA’s ski committee, said the agreement addresses long-standing barriers high school athletes and coaches have faced to participate in out-of-season events. He said it will give high school athletes, particularly Nordic skiers, more opportunities to compete against top competition and get more exposure to college coaches.

“I think the issues were very well-addressed,” Williamson said. “In Nordic, this is going to provide an opportunity for Maine high school skiers to compete in Eastern Cups and other elite events and to have more chances to qualify for the New England team for junior nationals. In my opinion, it’s a win-win situation with this new agreement.”

The legislative committee held a hearing on the bill in February, then voted to table it while legislators and the MPA worked to hammer out a solution. Berry and others, including bill co-sponsor Louis Luchini (D-Ellsworth) and coaches, met with MPA executive director Dick Durost on some of the terms, then asked the MPA’s ski committee to finalize the skiing elements of the agreement.

“It was really a group effort, college coaches who pointed out athletes are missing out on scholarships, former skiers, current coaches. … This is an issue that has been percolating and really bothering people for a very long time,” said Berry, who said the agreement has been confirmed with Durost in writing.

Durost said the agreement should eliminate a lot confusion over the restrictions for athletes and coaches who want to compete at elite events.

“We weren’t doing a good a job as we might in having that information readily available, both to schools as well as parents and student-athletes, that that waiver process was in place,” Durost said. “There is really no change in that process except that we have offered to make sure that we highlight that in each of the sport’s bulletins.”

Williamson said he has coached skiers who have wanted to compete in Eastern Cup races but were not able to due to the MPA’s bona fide team rule, which is designed to ensure high school athletes are regularly present for and compete in team practices and competitions.

Other coaches and skiers have said they know of skiers who have chosen not to compete for their high school teams at all in order to avoid the restrictions if they prefer tougher competition or want to ski in more prestigious races, such as junior nationals, where they are more likely to be noticed by college coaches.

“It’s great that (MPA officials) see the value in these events,” Williamson said. “I understand the concern about taking (away) the value of high school events with these elite events, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“As a coach, I obviously will support any athlete that wants to compete in these Eastern Cups,” Williamson added, “but they are first and foremost a member of the high school team … and they are wearing the school uniform as their primary uniform, so the value of high school athletics is still going to be strong.”

Berry and Durost said skiing required special attention in the agreement because Eastern Cup races and elite Alpine events are held almost simultaneously to the high school season

“There is one thing that makes skiing truly different than anything else, and that is that snow only lasts for so long,” Durost said. “For virtually any other sport or activity that we have, there are out-of-season opportunities (during), essentially, the other nine months of the year, whether it’s basketball or swimming or tennis or whatever it is. Student-athletes do have opportunities in each of those sports for a good portion of the year to go outside of the MPA sports season, and still have the opportunity to participate in those sports. But the sport of skiing truly is unique.”

“The MPA ski committee found what I think is a very clean solution,” Berry said. “They’re considering all of the Eastern Cup races to be elite events and those elite competitions will heretofore, in skiing and other sports, be separate from the waiver requirements and coaches will be able to attend and coach their athletes, which is great.”

The increase from one to two seasonal waivers, which will still require approval from the athlete’s principal and athletic directors, gives athletes more flexibility without violating the bona fide team rule, Durost said. He said coaches were and will continue to be a part of that waiver process and, for school liability reasons, would still have to clear with their schools and the MPA whether they can coach the athlete leading up to and during the event.

As for what qualifies as an “elite” event in administrators and the MPA’s eyes, Durost said the term is a “work in progress”  and will vary from sport to sport.

“That’s the kind of conversation that is going to have to take place within the school’s principal, AD, student-athlete and parents, and then have that same type of agreement with the MPA staff,” Durost said. “To sit down and try to make a list of elite events across 26 different sports, that was not our intent. I think our intent was to say we are open to the conversation around trying to accommodate some of these athletes who truly are elite.”


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