Kevin Leonard had just clicked “send” on an email to 15 of his returning and incoming Leavitt softball players about playing in an Auburn summer league when the Maine Principals’ Association released its guidelines for summer activities, effectively ending those plans.

Leavitt coach Kevin Leonard looks on as MacKenzie Treadwell slides into home to score a run before Spruce Mountain catcher Julianne Doiron fields the ball from the field during a 2017 game in Turner. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The guidelines included moving up the usual August “hands off” period to late June, while allowing them to continue online communication with athletes. In-person instruction, which typically starts in late June, can commence on July 6.

For Leonard, the directive was more salt in the still-painful wound of having the 2020 spring season wiped out by the coronavirus, especially considering the summer league’s organizers were planning safeguards for player safety.

“I guess frustration is the kindest word that I can come up with,” Leonard said in an email to the Sun Journal. “I’m frustrated. The players are frustrated. We lost out on the season and getting to play in a non-pressure, 10-game schedule with the opportunity to see how new players would respond, I felt, was priceless.”

Leonard and other coaches from central and western Maine said they understand rules and dates being adjusted to keep students as safe as possible.

“It’s frustrating,” Mountain Valley girls basketball coach Craig Milledge said, “because myself and every coach that I talk to just wants to be in the gym with their kids. At the same time, none of us want to jeopardize the health of our population just so we can get back to what really is just a game.”

“I realize that we’d all love to be playing baseball right now,” Mountain Valley baseball coach Steve LaPointe said, “but this is a pandemic, and 100,000 people are dead. I will abide by the decisions that are based on science. I appreciate the cautious approach that the state, CDC and MPA are taking.”

But coaches also expressed frustration over the specifics, or lack thereof, in the guidelines as they are planning to salvage what they can out of the summer.

“To be quite honest there is a great amount of confusion as to what is supposed to be happening this summer,” Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren said.

Soehren said coaches aren’t sure if sport-specific skills work will be allowed starting July 6. Initial reports suggested it would be, “but that is not the impression I have received from coaches who have spoken to their athletic directors or to the MPA or from the letter sent from the MPA,” he said.

The MPA’s Interscholastic Committee released a memo earlier this month saying that in-person guidelines, which would not replace any district level policies or rules, would be developed prior to July 6 and align “with recommendations from the Governor’s Office, the Maine CDC, and the Maine Department of Education.”

“It is also not the intent of establishing a July 6 date to reopen all activities,” reads the memo, which is posted on the MPA’s website, “but rather allow for a period of time prior to elapse before making recommendations around social gatherings, physical distancing requirements, the wearing of facemasks, and other guidelines being suggested by our state leadership.”

Oxford Hills head coach Mark Soehren on the sideline during a game against Windham in 2017. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Shortly after the MPA’s memo, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which the MPA has said it is preparing to follow, issued a three-phase plan to resume sports. The plan addresses, among other things, screenings for athletes and coaches, mask wearing and equipment usage.

Some coaches said the plan is too restrictive, noting that other organizations some of their players participate in, such as travel teams, will have less restrictions and/or faster timelines.

Other coaches said the guidelines are reasonable but not specific enough and often raise more questions, especially when they conflict with the governor’s restrictions. For example, the NFHS guidelines allow “(n)o gathering of more than 10 people at a time,” yet Governor Janet Mills’ reopening plan allows gatherings of up to 50 on June 1.

“I know that I read somewhere that everyone should wear masks unless it is a highly cardiovascular sport,” Soehren said. “It did not specify which sports those are, so I have questions that I am having a hard time getting answered.”

Coaches said some outside of athletics are questioning the need for any summer school-related activities at all. Edward Little girls basketball and Leavitt baseball coach Chris Cifelli said the lack of activities is taking a mental and physical toll on students.

“As much as we hope to get our kids back out there to start improving their game, and getting them to start exercising on a consistent basis, I think there is clearly a mental healthy piece as well,” Cifelli said. “I think the idea of just practicing with friends would be something that so many of us would look forward to.”

Edward Little boys basketball coach Mike Adams disagrees with a call during a Dec. 2019 game against Windham. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

Edward Little boys basketball coach Mike Adams has always pointed to his players’ participation in his summer program as a vital role in team success, including state championships in 2018 and 2020.

He said coaches have already recognized that this is not a normal summer given the circumstances. In his team’s case, the pandemic forced him to cancel the annual team trip, which this year was traveling to a camp at the University of Richmond.

“We’ll have to be very creative and realistically cannot make the same gains this summer as we normally would,” Adams said. “Obviously every team is facing the same obstacles.”

Cifelli and Adams have been working together to plan schedules and implementing state and MPA guidelines for their teams. Cifelli said athletic director Todd Sampson “has been a terrific resource on what summer basketball can look like.”

“For the first phase, we are trying to get our heads around what the schedule would look like,” Cifelli said. “We are balancing the fact that we tend to have large numbers of kids, but in the first phase we are looking at very small pods of kids. The scheduling of the sessions is tricky when considering checking kids in, taking time to sanitize and ultimately coaching the kids.”

Regardless of what the rules are when action resumes, coaches agreed they must make every effort to not only follow them, but find other ways within the rules to help players develop.

For example, Adams said, working with smaller groups of players may present an opportunity for coaches to focus on fundamentals.

“We don’t have to like it or agree,” Adams said. “Instead, we’ll take the challenge head on and make the most of it we can.”


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