Anne Simon takes a jump shot during a University of Maine women’s basketball practice. She says of wearing a face mask, “It was kind of hard at the beginning with breathing and keeping it up on your nose. Now it’s fine. I don’t even realize I’m wearing a mask.” Photo courtesy of University of Maine athletics

When news broke earlier this month that high school athletes would have to wear face coverings during competition this winter, University of Maine women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon took to Twitter to offer her thoughts.

Her tweet – “To MAINE bball coaches & athletes: If the requirement to play this winter is wear masks. Do it. Don’t question it. It’s worth it to play. Our team has been wearing masks during every practice/lift since August. Sometimes that’s 3 hr practices. It’s worth it. Stay safe & play!” – was greeted by a mix of support and skepticism. Skeptics said that wearing a mask would put the health of the players at risk.

“I had people emailing me and asking me if we were wearing masks,” said Vachon. “I wanted everyone to know we are, that we’re wearing them and it’s fine. I’m not the mask police. At one point, I was being trolled on social media. It’s not political for me. If players want to play and everyone has to wear a mask, let’s just do it.”

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the nation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its website recently to post new research that showed wearing a face covering protects not only everyone around a person, but the wearer as well. The COVID-19 virus is transmitted mostly through respiratory droplets, and the CDC states that wearing a mask can prevent a person from inhaling the airborne particles.

Throughout the pandemic, there have been concerns that wearing a mask during strenuous physical activities could be detrimental to the participants. That’s why state officials didn’t require Maine high school athletes to wear masks at the start of the fall season. But that changed after state officials reached out to states that did require masks to be worn during competition.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in a recent media conference that athletes in those states “were able to both perform and wear face coverings.”

In Maine, the Black Bears seem to be showing it can be done. Teams on the Orono campus have been wearing them during practices since the start of the school year.

Jack Quinlivan is a senior on the UMaine men’s hockey team. “You have to focus on breathing a little more because you need it that much more,” he says of wearing a mask. “It’s an adjustment and it helps with training.” Photo courtesy of University of Maine athletics

UMaine athletes and coaches said it took a short period of adjustment to acclimate to wearing a mask, and that masks are not a hindrance to endurance or performance.

Steph Ingo, a sophomore forward on the men’s basketball team, calls it “a whole new normal.”

“Eventually you don’t even realize you’re wearing it,” he added. “It’s not like a mask is going to affect your jump shot or how you rebound or how you cut to the basket.”

Anne Simon, a sophomore guard on the women’s basketball team, said, “It was kind of hard at the beginning with breathing and keeping it up on your nose. Now it’s fine. I don’t even realize I’m wearing a mask.”

And they are possibly benefiting from it. Many of the athletes said that wearing a mask during practice may have increased their endurance and helped them get in better shape.

“It’s kind of a blessing in disguise as far as training goes,” said Jack Quinlivan, a senior forward on the men’s hockey team. “You have to focus on breathing a little more because you need it that much more. It’s an adjustment and it helps with training.”

Some Maine high school athletes who have worn masks while competing had a similar sentiment.

While saying “it’s definitely a lot harder” wearing a mask while playing, Marshwood senior volleyball player Maddie Fjeld added, “But I don’t know, I feel like it gets us in better shape because it’s almost like running long distances in volleyball, which we don’t really do.”

Of course, there are skeptics, including those who replied to Vachon’s tweet, stating that young, healthy people should not be wearing masks, or that wearing a mask could eventually cause a player to collapse to the floor and suffer a concussion.

When the state mandated at the last minute that cross country runners would have to wear masks in the state championships scheduled for this past week (the meets were eventually canceled), several coaches were critical of the decision, including Greely High’s David Dowling.

He’s still not sure that wearing masks are beneficial for distance runners – or swimmers and Nordic skiers, he added – because of the nature of the sport.

“I guess getting used to it is part of it,” he said. “It’s like turning a flat run into a hill run. You want to be prepared for it. It’s an endurance sport. In some ways, (a mask) hampers it more than other sports because of the nature of prolonged breathing … In other sports you get a little rest. There’s no timeout in a 5K (race). And it’s not that a soccer player isn’t running the same distance, back and forth, but the little breaks make it a little more tolerable.”

For Yarmouth High volleyball coach Jim Senecal, his concern isn’t just focused on wearing a mask, it’s about wearing the proper mask and making sure everyone has the same chance to wear them.

“Will all the kids have access to same type of masks?” he said, noting that there are several high-end masks available. “Things like that make me think. In a lot of cases, there will be kids with the latest and greatest, and some will not be in the position to have it.”

In then end, both Dowling and Senecal said they will do anything to have a season.

“If we all have the same thing, I’m sure the kids will want to compete in any way possible,” said Dowling. “That’s the runner’s view of masks – particularly hateful, but we will do it if necessary.”

‘AT FIRST IT WAS A LITTLE WEIRD’

The University of Maine requires everyone to wear a face mask while on campus. So the athletes and coaches were already accustomed to wearing one when practices began.

By NCAA mandate, the start of practices were limited to working in small pods on individual skills. Still, Vachon said, “That first day of individual workouts, what would have taken us 30 minutes took an hour. You can’t do what you used to do. You have to take a lot of breaks. You have to let them have water. But now we can go three hours and have no issue. It just takes time.”

“I’m pretty comfortable now, but at first it was a little weird,” said Brooke Sulinski, a senior field hockey player from Old Town. “But our coaches understood it might be difficult, so they eased us into it. After a week or so, we adjusted.”

Finding the right mask is important. “It comes down to what they feel comfortable with,” said Vachon.

Many athletes use the disposable masks provided by the university. They’re lightweight, fit easily and can be quickly discarded – and replaced – if they get wet or torn. Others prefer cloth masks.

The football team provides all its players a cloth mask that has each player’s number on it. Those masks are washed each night. Football players are also wearing a plastic shield on their face masks that covers the area around the nose and mouth.

The men’s hockey team has also provided masks to its players. That cloth mask attaches to the cage on the helmets, providing a little more comfort.

Whatever mask you wear, you have to learn to play with it. Masks tend to move when you get jostled or when you run. They get sweaty. They slide off your nose.

“You can’t keep it up all the time,” said Ingo. “But coaches, other players and trainers do a good job reminding us to put it back up.”

The men’s hockey team at the University of Maine uses cloth masks that attach to the cage on the helmets, providing a little more comfort. Photo courtesy of University of Maine athletics

Perhaps the biggest adjustment comes in communication. In basketball, players need to talk to each other all the time to set up the offense or defense; hockey players need to communicate when they’re breaking out of the zone; in football, the quarterback is calling signals at the line. Coaches are always giving instructions. The mask, of course, muffles the voice.

“For sure, we’ve been much louder with the mask,” said Blanca Millan, a fifth-year senior on the women’s basketball team and the 2019 America East Player of the Year. “We have a lot of internationals (players) on our team, so we’ve got to be extremely loud and very clear. If you need to pull your mask down for a brief second and then say what you need to, then you put it back. It has to be really fast.”

Simon, who is from Luxembourg, said not being able to see faces does make the communication more difficult. But, she added, “Everyone just adjusted to screaming more and talking more.”

Ingo talks about echoing the message, meaning one player after another repeating it until everyone hears it.

Joe Fagnano, the Black Bears sophomore quarterback, said hand signals are very important. “You’ve just really got to yell for the guys to hear you,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll go silent (snap count). We’ve got signals for that. Ultimately, I’ll double-check to make sure everyone knows what the play is.”

‘THE KIDS JUST WANTED TO PLAY’

Other states have required that high school athletes wear masks during the fall season, including Massachusetts. That edict came from the state’s office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which established the reopening guidelines followed by businesses and all youth sports.

Tara Bennett, the director of communications for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, said the requirement was initially met with some resistance, but went smoothly once the season began. It did come with some modifications to allow “mask breaks,” according to Bennett. Soccer, for example, was not two traditional 40-minute halves but four 20-minute quarters.

“The kids just wanted to play,” said Bennett. “Can I come out and say there were no complaints? No, I can’t. I’m sure there were complaints. But the athletes wanted to play and the athletic directors wanted to get the kids out there moving. And that’s what they did.”

Masks will be required in the winter in Massachusetts as well. And, Bennett said, “Kids are resilient. They’ll figure it out just because they want to play.”

Girls’ soccer players run through a drill during a practice at York High in October. High school athletes were not required to wear masks during practices and competitions until the final week of the fall season, though some chose to anyway. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Mike Hathaway, the boys’ basketball and football coach at Leavitt High in Turner, is already telling his players they should start wearing a mask now if they’re going to go for a run or shooting around in their driveway.

“Finding the right mask, I think, is very important,” said Hathaway. “The kids are going to have to try things and see what they’re comfortable with.”

Hathaway is hoping that the Maine Principals’ Association will also modify rules this year to allow for “mask breaks” during basketball games, much like it did for soccer this fall with its sanitation breaks.

“Give them a chance to take the mask off, take some deep breaths, drink some water and get ready to play,” said Hathaway. “It’s almost like a TV timeout in college.”

Those Maine high school athletes who did wear a mask in the fall found they had to make a quick adjustment. But, said Biddeford senior field hockey player Maddy Dineen, “Honestly, once you get playing, you barely know it’s there. You’ve got all the adrenaline going and you’re just trying to play your best for your team.”

In the end, the athletes and coaches are certainly willing to do whatever they need to do to play.

“The bottom line is that we’re used to playing with the masks now,” said UMaine men’s hockey coach Red Gendron. “I would have to say this, everybody would prefer not to have them. But I’m not an epidemiologist. When people at that level tell me that that this is the right thing to do, if that’s the thing that is going to make a difference between us having a season or not playing at all, then I think myself and every player in the program will say we’ll wear a mask.”

Staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

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