Being prepared for anything and everything is one reason why Marshwood’s Alex Rotsko has been so successful as a high school football coach, but he says dealing with constantly changing coronavirus guidelines is “daunting.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It’s like trying to tackle the most elusive runner or prepare for a fluke deflection.

Coaches can plan, strategize, organize and prepare to the best of their ability. But the coronavirus pandemic, and its myriad potential impacts on high school sports in Maine and across the country, just keeps changing direction.

Spring sports were canceled. Summer leagues were canceled, and training sessions were postponed. This week, the superintendents in both York and Cumberland counties decided to continue to keep their facilities closed until at least Aug. 3, even as the Maine Principals’ Association released guidelines on how to begin face-to-face training on July 6.

But coaches are trying to prepare and plan for a fall season in which there would be sweeping safety modifications. Efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus will dramatically alter practice procedures, transportation, and locker room and weight room use. The need for daily health screenings, and possibly temperature checks, will likely add another important but time-consuming layer.

“It’s daunting, it really is. It’s overwhelming when you start to think about all the things we’ll have to do, and I’m sure there are a 100 things we haven’t thought about,” said Marshwood High football coach Alex Rotsko.

No one at this point can state definitively there will be a fall sports season, especially when it comes to sports that involve plenty of close contact like football, soccer and field hockey, or an indoor sport such as volleyball. If schools return to fully remote learning, as they did at the pandemic’s outbreak, it is unlikely any sports would be played.

Rotsko, who just turned 67, said he’s not concerned about his own personal safety. Instead, he’s worried about how the coronavirus creates so many unknowns, and increased variables. Rotsko has a 264-52 career high school record, with 16 state titles combined at Longmeadow High in Massachusetts and then at Marshwood (five of the past six years). Successful coaches like Rotsko work diligently to lessen uncertainty.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a roller coaster of information. Several coaches interviewed for this article said a week ago they were heartened about the possibility of having a fall season. Maine’s daily confirmed and active cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, were decreasing even as the state’s economy was reopening. Then came reports from around the country of surges, especially among younger people, and clusters of outbreaks within college athletic programs.

“For me, that’s been the most difficult thing,” Rotsko said. “You hear or see something one day that gives you hope, and then the next day, it’s something like Bowdoin College not having sports this fall. You’re just so up and down with it.”

Still, the planning goes on, even though, as Falmouth volleyball coach Larry Nichols put it, “All of us have gotten used to the dates moving and the recommendations changing.”

When coaches and players can meet again, whether that’s July 6 per the MPA guidelines, or Aug. 3 for schools in southern Maine, the initial emphasis will be on fitness training.

The MPA suggests teams start with small “pods” of 10 or fewer athletes. The intent is to lessen the chance of an infection running through an entire team and increasing the viability of contact tracing should a player or coach report signs of illness.

“The whole emphasis across this is we’ve got kids out of shape, so all the coaches just want their kids to be doing something, that’s kind of the universal thing,” said Nichols. “And each of the towns and municipalities are responsible for their own decisions.”

If the Winslow field hockey team is able to play this fall, Coach Mary Beth Bourgoin, right, and her players will have to adjust to social distancing guidelines, like all other teams. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

While high school coaches have not been allowed to have face-to-face contact with their players, they are well aware that many young athletes have begun competing with various club sport teams, especially in the last month when Maine’s COVID-19 guidelines allowed for gatherings up to 50 people.

“So that’s something else we have to think about,” said Mary Beth Bourgoin, the coach of Winslow High’s defending Class B champion field hockey team. “Like I told my girls, I’m not the judge and jury, I’m not the police, but I also have to make sure all the girls are safe. I’ve checked with my girls. Are you playing any tournaments? I need to know, so if we do (practice) on (July 6), and have smaller groups, I’ll know what I want to do.”

DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

It would seem the fall of 2020 would be about the worst possible time to become a rookie varsity head coach. But that’s not the way Matt Williams, a former professional soccer goalie with the Dayton Dutch Lions, is looking at the situation. Williams, a 2006 Cheverus High graduate who has been a college and high school assistant coach, was introduced earlier this week as the new boys’ soccer coach at North Yarmouth Academy.

“For me as a coach, it’s almost the perfect time where everyone is on the same level playing field and we’re just hoping everyone is healthy and safe,” Williams said. “Every coach should have to be able to adapt to situations, and this is the ultimate proving ground. There isn’t a coach in the state who has been through this. Everyone on the other side of the ball is worried about the same things you’re worried about.”

Yarmouth’s Mike Hagerty, left, and North Yarmouth Academy’s Matt Williams are trying to prepare their boys’ soccer teams for a fall season that may or may not happen. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A few miles away, Mike Hagerty coaches the the Yarmouth High boys’ soccer juggernaut that has won five of the past six Class B championships. Hagerty said he’s not overly concerned about his players returning in shape.

“I’m seeing kids run all over Yarmouth and they’re training, and now gyms are opening up,” Hagerty said. “I’m not worried about fitness, but I am worried about competitive fitness; the game-speed type stuff.”

Hagerty said his bigger concern is the mental aspect of how players – and coaches – are dealing with the continued uncertainty.

“That piece, we have to reason kids though all that. I’m way more worried about kids’ mental health than their physical health,” Hagerty said. “It’s just a very weird time.”

Meredith Messer, the girls’ soccer coach at Camden Hills, expressed similar concerns. Like Hagerty, she’s confident her players will come to her in good overall physical condition. After all, the Windjammers have won four straight Class A titles. They are a motivated bunch that knows how to prepare, with an incoming senior class eager to make its own mark.

But she knows her players are anxious, especially those who already lost a spring sport season.

“Some have already asked, ‘Are we going to have a season,’ “ Messer said. “That’s already weighing on them, that feeling of loss. For teenagers, that social component is so important to them.”

PRACTICES WILL LOOK DIFFERENT

Assuming their fall seasons start, coaches know that practices will need to be different. For starters, coaches and any athletes not actively engaged in physical action had better get used to wearing a face mask.

“Coaches just have to be able to adjust, even if it’s something that they may not agree with or think is helpful,” said John Trull, the boys’ basketball head coach and an assistant football coach at Bonny Eagle High. “You have to do whatever you have to do to get kids back playing sports.”

For those who can begin working out on July 6, the first month will be almost exclusively focused on conditioning. For the first two weeks, sport-specific equipment or skill activity are not allowed under the MPA guidelines. Then in the Phase 2 period from July 20 to Aug. 2, when indoor facilities like weight rooms can open and equipment like balls and sticks can be used, there still can’t be any form of competition, even one-on-one drills. Individual sport-specific activities will be allowed in those two weeks.

The MPA guidelines for the month of August, when preseason is supposed to begin, still haven’t been developed. When those decisions are made, coaches will again have to adapt to the new norms.

Scarborough girls’ soccer coach Mike Farley said social distancing rules will force changes in multiple ways. No more bus rides with 60 players, no more bunching players together during practice drills, and even the seating arrangements on the sidelines must be altered and monitored.

But, “Once on the soccer field, you’re never social distancing.”

The goal will be to “limit risk,” Farley said. “But you can’t wipe out risk. You have to live with some level of risk just to play. Families need to weigh the risks.”

Bonny Eagle football coach Kevin Cooper said he thinks coaches can both adapt and put safety first.

“We have to be smart. We have to do things that are of good sense in terms of preventing the spread of the virus. We can’t expect to just go out there and not think of that; in many ways it’s how coaches have had to adapt to the concussion issue. We can’t coach the same way we used to. We need to work hard to prevent concussions and, at least this year, we need to work hard to prevent the spread of the virus, and I think whatever we need to do, we will adapt.”


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