The national organization that oversees high school sports suggests limiting travel as a way to lessen the risk of coronavirus transmission and, possibly, get teams back to competing in the fall of 2020.

Athletic directors across Maine say if regional schedules are the difference between having a season or not, then it’s worth doing. It would mean tearing up already completed conference-based schedules and playing games against schools that might be significantly larger or smaller. But after a spring with no sports at all, kids just want to play.

Bonny Eagle’s Jacob Humphrey hauls in a touchdown pass in the Class A state championship game last fall. “I would 100 percent rather play, and play different opponents, than not play at all,” he says. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“I would 100 percent rather play, and play different opponents, than not play at all,” said Jacob Humphrey, who will be a senior at Bonny Eagle. “I don’t really pay attention to the Heal points anyway. As long as we get to play, I’m fine with it.”

“It may be a smart thing to start thinking about,” said Bunky Dow, the athletic director at Mt. Desert Island High. “I think we could develop pods. And the most important thing is to get the kids back to the environment of playing sports. I think right now, championship stuff is the last thing we should be thinking about.”

In May, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) laid out seven points of emphasis in a 16-page guideline for how schools should return to practices and then games. Number 4 on the list suggests “scheduling contests that require less travel when possible should be considered.”

Leavitt football coach Mike Hathaway says: “Instead of us maybe going to Wells, we play Lewiston (or Edward Little). If it comes to that, I’m for it as opposed to playing no regular season at all.” Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“They mention scheduling games geographically close to your school, maybe in neighboring counties, to limit time on the bus together,” Leavitt football coach Mike Hathaway said. “So instead of us maybe going to Wells, we play Lewiston (or Edward Little). If it comes to that, I’m for it as opposed to playing no regular season at all.”

The Maine Principals’ Association is working on producing its own state-specific guidelines based on the goal of fall sports starting Aug. 17 as planned. Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director for interscholastic activities, said the document will likely be finalized and released this week and will include recommendations to anticipated questions.

“And one of those has to do with whether schools should consider regional schedules,” Burnham said. “We’ve recommended that until there is a clearer understanding of what education may look like in the fall, including school-based activities, that schools hold off on developing regional schedules.”

Burnham said going to a regional schedule should be seen as a last resort to save the season.

But the concept of schedules based on geographic proximity, instead of classification and conference affiliation, is being discussed by school officials.

“Regional scheduling is certainly a topic when it comes to managing the aftermath of COVID-19,” said Gary Stevens, Thornton Academy’s AD. “Right now, all of the leagues are planning and hoping for the best. We’re planning to go ahead with our regular schedule, but we have to keep in the back of our mind that we may have to examine other options.”

Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels says that with the need to enforce social distancing guidelines on a school bus, it is unlikely both a varsity and junior varsity team will be able to travel together. Photo courtesy of Craig Sickels

The advantage of regional schedules boils down to transportation, said Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels. With the need to enforce social distancing guidelines on the bus, it is unlikely both a varsity and junior varsity team will be able to travel together as they would have in the past.

Stevens said peers in Iowa, where the high school baseball season is about to start, have told him they are limiting bus passengers to 13 students on a 77-person bus.

“The advantages of a geographic-based schedule all revolve around COVID-19,” Sickels said. “You don’t have to put JV and varsity on the same bus. If we’re going to Lake Region, there’s no way we can send one bus up and then another one up. I only have three buses a day for all my high school and middle school teams, and I’m no different than anybody else.”

But if Freeport, a Western Maine Conference Class B South school, is playing a soccer game at Class A North schools Brunswick (10 miles away) or Mt. Ararat (11 miles), then the same bus could make separate trips to get the JV team and then the varsity squad to the field.

“Also, the kids aren’t on the bus breathing the same air for an hour and 45 minutes,” Sickels said.

Sickels also pointed out the WMC, SMAA and the KVAC have been able to work out cross-conference schedules in basketball for the past six years.

Yarmouth boys’ soccer coach Mike Hagerty said he would “love” a regional schedule. His powerful program has won five of the last six Class B state titles.

Yarmouth boys’ soccer Coach Mike Hagerty is all for regional scheduling. “We would have a more competitive schedule that way,” he says. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I’ve been asking the SMAA for years to open up their schedule,” Hagerty said. “Just driving between Yarmouth and Portland, South Portland, I could get four really good games and give them four really good games and not go as far as Poland, Sacopee and Fryeburg. Also selfishly, we would have a more competitive schedule that way.”

Hagerty also suggested that with games against nearby schools, parents would be more apt to be able to get their children to games, much as they do for club sports.

“Buses are a place of close contact, and you could do travel waivers,” Hagerty said.

A potential drawback of a regional schedule is that some of Maine’s schools are isolated and rely on a conference affiliation to complete a schedule, said Burnham.

Ross Burdick, the athletic director at Waynflete School in Portland, agreed a regional schedule plan should be a last resort.

“I feel like we could easily get a regional schedule and Traip Academy (in Kittery) could probably get one, but where does that leave a Lake Region? Where does that leave Fryeburg?” Burdick said.

Fryeburg Academy Athletic Director Sue Thurston acknowledged that a regional schedule might not make much of a difference in terms of travel for her school. The closest high school to Fryeburg is actually Kennett in Conway, New Hampshire. The nearest Maine neighbors are fellow Western Maine Conference schools Sacopee Valley in Hiram (18 miles away) and Lake Region in Naples (20 miles). Adding Class A Oxford Hills (31 miles) might help for one trip, but the Raiders would still be looking at a number of hour-plus rides.

But Thurston is also a mother of a high school senior. Her son Eddie “has been in the weight room for over a year, trying to get ready for his senior year. I don’t think he cares who he plays. And many of his classmates are the same way.”

Presque Isle Athletic Director Mark White said a regional schedule could work for his school in the “very, very short term,” but he’s worried that it could set a damaging long-term precedent. Presque Isle and Caribou, each with about 500 students, are significantly larger than the rest of the schools in Aroostook County. Both routinely travel more than six hours round trip to compete against similar-sized Penobscot Valley Conference programs.

“If (regional schedules is) what needed to happen to get athletics going and be mindful of the virus, we could make it work,” White said. “Long-term regionalization would be really hard for Presque Isle just because we’re so much bigger than everybody else. It would negatively impact my JV programs. Most of the programs up here just have varsity teams.

“I’m thinking beyond the 20-21 school year. Obviously budgets are getting tighter with or without COVID-19, and I would be afraid that rather than being the exception to the rule, then regionalization would become the norm.”

– Staff Writer Mike Lowe contributed to this story.


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