With limits on gatherings increased to 50 people as of June 1, organized sports are returning to Maine as the state’s youth club teams scramble to create schedules and find fields. On Wednesday, two softball teams from the Southern Maine River Rats’ organization played on a Little League field in Lebanon. Steve Craig photo

Since the middle of March, the sports landscape has been stripped bare in Maine. No high school, college or professional sports. Road races, charity bike rides and all-star football games canceled.

All because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But that started to change last week, when the state expanded the maximum size of gatherings from 10 to 50 people on June 1 – paving the way for fee-based youth club sports to resume under safety guidelines from the state and federal CDCs.

It’s a welcome relief to thousands of Maine families who build their summers around athletic activities for their children, and for the kids who have been cooped up inside and longing to play organized sports once again.

Clubs moving forward with games contend their sports can be played safely by making modifications that emphasize social distancing and sanitizing, similar to those in place for reopening businesses. They are also limiting travel to within Maine and playing only in-state teams. Several organizers, and parents, strongly believe that the mental and physical health benefits gained from athletics far outweigh the relatively low risk of serious illness from COVID-19 for children.

But one prominent orthopedist, with years of experience studying sports medicine safety issues, warns that resuming competitive games this soon is “completely reckless.”

“These kids run a risk. I understand they want to play. But what they don’t understand is they can catch this virus, be asymptomatic, and then pass it on to their parents or grandparents. It’s reckless and flying in the face” of state and federal recommendations, said Dr. William Heinz, chair of the Maine Principals’ Association’s Sports Medicine Committee. Heinz is the former chair of the National Federation of State High School Association’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and has served as the team physician for the Portland Sea Dogs.

INTERPRETING STATE GUIDELINES

On Wednesday night at a Little League field in Lebanon, concerns about contracting or spreading COVID-19 were being addressed through social distancing, face coverings and an avoidance of physical contact for two softball teams. But the focus was on returning to play. It was the first game of the year for girls on the Southern Maine River Rats’ 18-and-under team, playing in a newly formed league of teams based in Maine.

“When I woke up today, I was just super excited knowing I had a game today,” said Anna Gilbert, who is finishing her sophomore year at Gray-New Gloucester High. “What I missed most was just interacting with my teammates. This game is so fun.”

A similar baseball arrangement will start June 13. And across the state, parents have been fielding emails from other youth organizations about sports sign-ups – including basketball – and have been asked to sign waivers releasing clubs from any legal or financial responsibility should a child, coach or parent contract COVID-19 during club activities.

“Obviously everyone is doing a waiver,” said Jason Lariviere, the cofounder and baseball director of the Southern Maine River Rats baseball/softball club.

Clubs are taking different approaches, often based on varying interpretations of Maine Department of Economic and Community Development guidelines for reopening nonprofessional sports.

Seacoast United Maine’s club director, Andrew Pelletier, read the guidelines and made the decision that his 2,000-player soccer club would start June 8 with noncontact, skills-based training only – all conducted outdoors. Games and even scrimmages will wait.

“The sports amendment pretty clearly states no contact activities and strongly discourages game play, and we’re following orders of no contact until we get the go-ahead from the state CDC,” Pelletier said.

The Maine Firecrackers, the state’s premier girls’ basketball club, has shelved all operations until the fall.

“I don’t know how you can play sports. How can you say that to everybody when the rest of the world is 6 feet apart and wears masks in grocery stores and all the businesses are not open yet?” said Don Briggs, the co-founder of the Firecrackers.

Briggs said his club’s parents are overwhelmingly in favor of the Firecrackers’ decision.

Lariviere, however, said his parents are strongly in favor of getting their kids back on the diamond. Only three of the River Rats’ roughly 230 baseball players have decided to not play this summer because of coronavirus concerns, he said.

WIDE RANGE OF AGES

Club sports are privately owned and operated businesses that are not connected to school sports. Parents pay fees so their children can play on teams that travel for better competition and receive year-round training. Participation can start as young as preschool in sports such as soccer, and grade-school teams are common. As players reach middle and high school ages, travel teams tend to become more selective, with an increased focus on gaining college recruiting exposure.

So, like restaurants and retail stores, club sports organizations feel the pressure to undertake the necessary precautions to produce a pandemic-era product.

“For us, it’s two-fold. We have to make sure it’s safe, but we also have paying customers who count on our services,” Lariviere said. “If it’s safe to do so, then we felt we owed it to our families to move forward.”

Briggs acknowledged that shutting down the Firecrackers is an easier call for he and co-founder Brian Clement because they have never treated the club as a money-making operation. The club has only about 80 girls from fourth through 12th grade, and after June 1, only the high school players would have been involved for a handful of practices and two showcase tourneys in July that have been canceled because of the pandemic.

“I can’t sit here and say the decision to play is the wrong one,” Briggs said. “It’s just not the right one for us.”

Kathryne Clay of Cape Elizabeth leads the Southern Maine River Rats 18-and-under club softball team off the field after a scoreless inning on Wednesday. Clay and her teammates, including from left, Hannah Gosselin and Charlotte Donovan of Biddeford and Mia Micucci of South Portland, had to remind themselves not to high-five or slap hands because of COVID-19 precautions. Steve Craig photo

“The biggest thing was, we’re just getting these girls outside and getting them active,” said Travis Demmons, who is the River Rats’ director of softball and organized the multi-age, 30-team league that started Monday. “And I received so many emails from parents (Tuesday) morning saying that they hadn’t seen that sparkle in their daughter’s eyes in so many weeks.

“Obviously, maintaining healthy distances from each other is important, but similarly, maintaining or keeping their mental health in a positive manner is important,” Demmons added. “And I think that will help them to continue to follow the rules that pertain to social distancing when they’re at home.”

Demmons said he designed the New England Girls’ Softball League months ago as a just-in-case alternative when the virus outbreak was first spreading into Maine. At that time, he thought teams from Massachusetts would be included, hence the league’s regional name.

Now the league consists of teams only from Maine. With many municipal fields and high school facilities still closed to the public, the games are being played at privately owned Little League fields. Other well-established clubs in the league include Maine Thunder (the softball partner with baseball’s Maine Lightning), Southern Maine Flame and New England Legacy. Some Little League-affiliated town programs are also playing.

“We rolled out our games on (June 1) because we said these are going to be laid-back, scrimmage, instructional type games and I just didn’t want to lose any moment we could play,” Demmons said.

The River Rats’ baseball schedule, for 10U to 17U teams, will start June 13. Practices began Monday. Like softball, it will be a modified Maine-only league that would have been in the regional New England Elite Baseball League. The game schedule will be primarily doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday, through July. There is still a tentative hope that by August, conditions might allow for some out-of-state competition.

Demmons said the positional structure of softball and baseball already provides significant social distancing. Catchers are being asked to set up farther back from the hitter than normal, and the home plate umpire stands 6 feet behind the catcher.

Other precautionary modifications include limiting the people in a dugout to three players and one coach, keeping parents and spectators behind the outfield fence, having each team use its own balls while playing defense, disinfecting balls after each half inning, mandating players use only their own bat and gloves, and emphasizing social distancing when not playing.

Face masks are not required for players on the field but are encouraged when on the sidelines. Coaches will have logbooks to track which players are at games or practices, Lariviere said, in case contact tracing is needed. Temperature checks and health screening are the responsibility of parents. During events, enforcement of social distancing and health monitoring is likely to fall to the coaches. Having an athletic trainer at a club sport event is uncommon.

PARENTS WEIGH DECISIONS

Parents ultimately make the final risk-versus-reward decision, said Shawn Humphrey of Standish. His son Jacob, 17, will be a senior at Bonny Eagle High this fall, where he’s a three-sport standout in football, basketball and baseball, the latter his preferred sport for college. This was supposed to be his key recruiting summer. Jackson Humphrey, 9, is also a multi-sport athlete who, like his older brother, plays club baseball for the Maine Lightning. Shawn Humphrey is one of the 9U coaches for the Lightning.

“The concern that I have personally for Jacob and Jackson contracting the coronavirus, COVID-19, through baseball, it’s not at the level to keep me from letting them play,” said Shawn Humphrey. “As a coach, I need to make sure guidelines are followed. As a parent, I just think they’re ready to play.”

Humphrey added he understands not every parent will feel the same.

“As a coach of any team, if a parent isn’t comfortable with sending their child back, we should all be OK with that,” he said. “I do understand the concern. I just know I’m ready.”

Jenny Meader of Gorham said she and her son Bode, a basketball and baseball player at Gorham High, are “ready for sports to resume. I am not opposed to the opening of these gates. I believe that we can implement new protocols in regards to their safety.”

As an avid and competitive bass fisherman, Bode Meader had at least one athletic passion he could continue to pursue during the pandemic (though competitions have been put on hold). Now, the grandson of former UMaine-Farmington men’s basketball coach Dick Meader is ready to return to his summer club basketball team, Portland-based Blue Wave Basketball, his mother said.

Heinz would probably tell the Meaders that Bode should stick with fishing.

“I was reading an article and they were talking about how if you could design a sport that could spread COVID-19 more than any other, it would probably be basketball,” Heinz said. “You’re on top of each other, bumping into each other, and you’re breathing the same air, and what causes this infection is respiratory droplets.”

CONCERNS ABOUT INDOOR SPORTS

The day before Maine’s community sports guidelines were released, the National Federation of State High School Associations issued its own guidance suggestions for restarting school sports, which included classifying sports into Lower Risk, Moderate Risk and Higher Risk categories.

Baseball and softball, according to the NFHS document, could be considered a lower risk sport with proper sanitizing of equipment and use of masks for participants.

Basketball, like soccer, is considered a moderate risk sport because of the close contact between players by the NFHS. Raising the risk for basketball is that organized summer tournaments are held indoors. Maine’s guidelines say, “Indoor sports activities significantly increase exposure to respiratory droplets in the shared air space.”

E-mails sent to parents in the past 10 days from two prominent southern Maine basketball clubs, Blue Wave and the Maine Renegades, encouraged parents to sign their children up quickly in hopes of playing in summer tournaments run by Maine Hoops. Blue Wave was targeting the June 19-21 weekend. Maine Hoops’ first tournament weekend is scheduled for June 12-14.

In the Blue Wave’s emails, signed by club director Steve Haines, links to both Maine’s reopening guidelines and the national CDC’s “considerations for the return of youth sports” websites were provided. The CDC cautions that assessment of risk needs to consider the physical proximity of participants, and close-contact sports like wrestling or basketball should limit full contact to “only in game-time situations.” Haines states that his Blue Wave teams will only go full-contact during games.

Haines did not return multiple phone messages nor an email requesting an interview for this story. Lenny Holmes, the owner-organizer of Maine Hoops powered by Zero Gravity, declined to be interviewed. Holmes referred a reporter to the Maine Hoops website, which includes its safety plan and proposed tournament schedule.

Pelletier, the Seacoast United director, says he’s not ready to hold his skill-based, noncontact practices indoors, even though Seacoast owns an indoor training facility in Topsham. For now, all Seacoast workouts will be held at Pine Tree Academy in Freeport.

“The way I read (Maine’s state guidelines) was there shouldn’t be any indoor sports, and once we get a clear slate to bring things back indoors, we will,” Pelletier said.

Demmons said he knows some people, especially those outside of the club sports community, will be skeptical about teams’ return to action. He says that’s why it’s paramount that coaches, players and parents stay within the guidelines.

“We have to be honest. There are people out there that don’t want us playing,” Demmons said.


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