Maine’s high school tackle football season was called off in the fall. Now the the Maine Football Coaches Association has been asked to come up with a proposal for a possible season. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Maine’s long winter is one reason why the state’s high school football coaches are looking to push their postponed season into the summer.

“Up in our area, in March, we’re still skiing. There’s snow all over the place,” said Mark Soehren, the football coach at Oxford Hills in South Paris.

But the primary reason to wait until May to start a preseason, with games extending into July, is the same reason football was knocked out of its traditional fall slot.

We are in coronavirus pandemic.

And, football is still categorized as a high-risk sport by the Maine Principals’ Association and key decision-making state agencies.

“The longer you hold off, the better,” said Leavitt Area Coach Mike Hathaway, who like Soehren has a son who would be his team’s returning senior quarterback.

“Obviously a vaccine would help, too. I really think if we can have a little bit of a winter season and then maybe a semi-regular spring season, I think there would be a good chance they’ll let us play football,” Hathaway added.

When football was shelved on Sept. 10, the early sentiment was to try to play a season after winter sports were concluded. But when the MPA announced earlier this month that it intends to have an indoor volleyball season between winter and spring sports, MPA assistant executive director Mike Bisson said football in the last stages of a Maine winter is not a good fit.

“February and March are not realistic for football in Maine. That might work in other states, but not here,” said Bisson, adding that the Maine Football Coaches Association has been charged with coming up with a proposal for a possible season.

Across the country, 35 states played high school football this fall, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. New Hampshire was the only New England state to have tackle football in the fall. Its state championships concluded Nov. 21. While completed, New Hampshire’s season was impacted by the pandemic. Four teams had to forfeit playoff games because of COVID-19 outbreaks at their schools. Several teams played three or fewer regular-season games.

For the remaining 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, what to do with football is still a mostly open question. Most of the states that did not have fall football have set proposed start dates for February, creating a wedge season, between the end of winter sports and the start of spring sports. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have set tentative start dates for football practice of Feb. 22. Connecticut has a similar proposal but has not set dates. New York has set March 1 to start football.

Maine’s winters, combined with the limited artificial turf fields, particularly north of the Portland and Lewiston areas, would create problems if seasons were to be played in March and April.

Portland Coach Jason McLeod said, “Selfishly, for me, we’ll plow (Fitzpatrick Stadium). Let’s do it. But you go back to the upper part of the state, how can we even think about playing football in March? A grass field in northern Maine? You can’t do it.”

Even more problematic than a Maine winter is the pandemic itself. According to the School Sports Guidance: Return to Competition for Competitive Athletics and Activities in Maine, updated Nov. 6 to create a tentative path toward winter sports, football is high risk when it comes to possible virus spread and therefore can only engage in skill-based, social-distanced activities.

McLeod said he hopes that by waiting until May to begin a football preseason, a vaccine will be readily available and the current surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths will have been tamped down.

If football is eventually given the go-ahead from state agencies, then the MPA and coaches will have to work around other issues, including but not limited to conflicts with spring sports and then summer travel-sport opportunities, summer employment, family vacations, and whether a graduated senior still wants to play a month after receiving his diploma.

CONFLICT WITH SPRING SPORTS

Starting preseason in late May, the conflict with spring sports will be lessened but not eliminated, if spring sports stick to their traditional calendar. Baseball and lacrosse players would be in the latter portion of their regular seasons, preparing for playoffs that conclude the third Saturday in June. Track and field state meets are the first Saturday in June. Of course the spring sport calendar could be condensed but there is a strong sentiment to keep that season as intact as possible, since spring sports were already wiped out at the beginning of the pandemic.

Bangor football coach David Morris is also the Rams’ varsity baseball coach. Bangor’s baseball program won five straight Class A titles from 2014-2018.

Morris could conceivably be trying to run practices for two sports at the same time, making for a busy spring.

“It’s great to be busy, so I’m looking forward to it, if that’s how it unwinds here,” Morris said during the fall 7-on-7 touch football season.

“The bottom line is, whatever happens, we just know it’s not going to be normal until we get back to a regular cycle,” Morris said. “Whether it’s the MPA or the coaches, you just try to do the best you can under these circumstances. Whatever, whenever, we’ll do the best that we can do.”

McLeod added: “You want to be able for those (spring) sports to happen in their traditional means. We shouldn’t take away that with football but if a compromise can be made where both can happen and transpire I think it’s going to be something great for kids to do.”

Were football to wait until the fourth weekend in June to play its first games, a five-week season would finish July 24.

That creates a limited time before football would start again for the fall 2021 season, which is typically in mid-August.

“I don’t know how you play into July and then again mid-August,” said Lance Johnson, the Portland High athletic director and former varsity football coach at Scarborough. “Take a couple weeks off and start up again? I don’t know if that’s a great idea.”

Soehren suggested a four-to-six week break.

“If we started (a fall season) the last week of August and the entire first week is non-contact, I think that would be entirely reasonable and safe,” Soehren said. “End in July, a couple of weeks of no hands-on (coaching), lifting for a couple of weeks and then start in late August.”

There is also the question of whether the players will commit, especially the seniors who have already graduated.

“I think it would be great if we can pull it together. I know our kids would be on board,” said Deering Coach John Hardy, who was hired just before the pandemic began to shut sports down across the country in mid-March.

“If you question our team, nearly 100 percent would do it,” McLeod said. “So operating under that guise alone, let’s make this work. Cause at the end of the day, we’re doing it for kids.”

“I do think it’s worth trying,” Soehren said. “As a parent of a senior and the coach of these kids, it just feels very unfinished.”


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