There will be no tackle football at Maine high schools this fall, but players and coaches hold out hope for a season in the late winter/early spring. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

In Connecticut on Wednesday, over 1,000 high school football players, parents and coaches descended on the Capitol Building in Hartford to protest that state’s decision to cancel the 2020 season. In New York, where football has been moved to next spring, similar rallies are being planned.

Here in Maine, coaches, players and fans reacted to the news Thursday that Maine’s high school football season was canceled with sadness, disappointment and confusion. They wonder why, in a state that has one of the lowest COVID-19 transmission rates in the nation, their sport can’t be played while others can.

Maybe it’s as simple as this:

“The time isn’t right yet for football,” said Dr. William Heinz, the chair of the Maine Principals’ Association’s Sports Medicine Committee. “And I understand. We are one of the lowest COVID incidence rates in country and we want to keep it there. We want to keep as many people safe as possible.”

Heinz, who early in the summer thought there was no way football could be played, came around after watching the sport be played across the country with no outbreaks. He decided Maine’s football players deserved a chance to play, or at least start their season, and recommended as such.

“In the end,” he said Thursday night, “it’s still a risk.”

Volleyball also had its fall season canceled. But the spotlight is on football’s lost season. And that’s understandable.

“I think football has a lot to do with the social fabric of communities, the way it bonds communities together,” said Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “We are living in times that are too often described by hateful behavior and divisiveness and in this sport we see an approach of how we get to a common outcome.”

Football, Lebowitz said, is the ultimate team game, where all 11 parts have to function properly for a single play to be effective. Everyone has to work toward a common cause, something that even the average fan can appreciate.

“It doesn’t matter your politics, it doesn’t matter your religion, it doesn’t matter your race,” said Lebowitz. “There is this common ground, of sort, of a collective community that is achieved through football.”

Since the cornonavirus pandemic shut down high school sports on April 9, the path to the fall season has been long, drawn-out and frustrating.

High school players and coaches rejoiced when the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee recommended on Aug. 26 that all sports be played. A day later the MPA’s Interscholastic Management Committee approved that recommendation and sent its new fall sports guidelines to state officials for review.

State officials, saying the guidelines didn’t meet all state COVID-19 safety protocols, sent the guidelines back to the MPA for revisions. And when the MPA released its final guidelines on Thursday, football and volleyball didn’t make the cut.

Bonny Eagle football coach Kevin Cooper said breaking the news to his team was an “incredibly hard and emotional discussion,” and “one of hardest things I ever had to do as a coach.”

The frustration, said Kevin Kezal, the football coach at Thornton Academy in Saco, is not knowing how to proceed. “What’s the goal to get to? What will allow us to play?”

There really is no easy answer to that. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Maine applies a risk factor to each sport based on certain factors – “How densely are people packed together and for what period of time,” he said – while also sharing data from other states, and even colleges, to see how they handle COVID-19.

“For example, for sports like baseball, basketball and football, there have been notable outbreaks associated with sports teams at the collegiate level,” said Shah. “Was COVID-19 transmitted during practice or the games? It’s unclear. Was COVID-19 potentially transmitted in the locker room or on the bus to practice or to a game? Possibly. We’re trying to get a better sense of those different risk factors … Was COVID transmitted elsewhere and just detected among other members of the team, or were the team sports activities themselves vectors for transmission? It appears to be both at different schools.”

Under the new guidelines, football teams will be allowed to play 7-on-7 touch or flag football against other nearby schools. And MPA officials say they hope to offer tackle football, along with volleyball, during late winter or early spring. Todd Sampson, the athletic director at Edward Little High in Auburn, said work needs to begin on what that season will look like. They already know weather and field availability will be issues to work around.

“I think we owe it to our kids to try,” he said. “I’m not a football guru, I’m just a big football fan. We just took something away that is very precious to these student-athletes and they deserve us trying to give them that opportunity. Maine springs are not conducive to much other than mud, but I know they will play whenever we can.”

Old Orchard Beach football coach Dean Plante, also the school’s athletic director and girls’ basketball coach, said his eight-man football team will be willing to adapt, noting OOB was the first school to announce intentions to switch to the eight-man format, the first to play an eight-man game and the first small-school eight-man championship team.

“If this means we’re playing in the spring, we’re not adverse to trying something new,” Plante said. “We’re kind of well-versed to being pioneers, you could say. And we’ll use that as motivation and maybe we can be the first spring (football) champions.”

Portland Press Herald staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

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