The University of Southern Maine has announced plans for a modified winter sports season with a drastically reduced schedule and on-campus testing for COVID-19.

Practices would begin in late January, with a schedule of  six games – or 25 percent of a normal regular season schedule – to be played in February. Those games would not involve overnight travel.

But, USM officials cautioned, everything depends on the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

“At this point we have a plan,” said USM president Glenn Cummings. “But we recognize plans under a pandemic are very fragile.”

The Huskies would begin a three-week preseason on Jan. 25, which is when all students are scheduled to return to campus. When the Huskies are allowed to play games, away contests will be limited to no more than a two-hour drive. Cummings noted that USM would go as far as Plymouth, New Hampshire, to play Plymouth State University, and Waterville, where Thomas College and Colby College are located.

“Our first and perhaps most important goal beyond health is to give our student-athletes an opportunity to stay engaged with their teammates, to continue to do something they love that is essential to their college experience,” said Cummings. “Health is our No.1 priority. If we can find safe ways to keep them engaged, we want to make that available.”

USM is the first local NCAA Division III school to set a plan for playing winter sports.

Bowdoin College shut its season down on Oct. 8. along with the rest of the New England Small College Athletic Conference. The Great Northeast Athletic Conference, of which St. Joseph’s College is a member, canceled its winter season on Nov. 2, but the Monks are hoping to pick up some non-league games. The University of New England in Biddeford is waiting to see what the Commonwealth Coast Conference does. The CCC is waiting until January to make a decision on winter sports.

The Little East Conference, of which USM is a member, has not made an announcement on its winter sports season yet.

“They’re still looking at who’s in and who’s out,” said USM athletic director Al Bean. “I would expect something (soon).”

Part of USM’s winter sports plan involves on-campus antigen testing, similar to that being done at the University of Maine. In fact, said Cummings, USM officials have received from UMaine officials a list of ingredients and other necessary items needed to establish a testing lab on campus. Each athlete will be tested three times a week, according to Bean.

“I think we’ll try to do something similar to what UMaine is doing,” said Bean.

Face masks will be required by everyone during practices, but players will not need to wear them during competitions.

USM offers men’s and women’s basketball, ice hockey, and track and field in the winter, along with men’s wrestling.

Bean said the schedule will likely include mostly in-state schools. “We’re trying to give people an opportunity to participate and engage in the sport without going too far,” he said.

Some sports, such as ice hockey and track, will require waivers from state officials regarding the Maine’s 50-person limit on indoor gathering.

“When we look at hockey, we know there’s likely, between the two teams, coaching personnel and support personnel within the ice arena, over 50 people,” said Cummings. “We would require a waiver from the state government.”

There are still many issues to work out, said Bean, including finding opponents with similar COVID-19 safety protocols. He added USM officials will be following pandemic developments closely. Maine has been experiencing a spike in COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations.

“A lot of things are increasing,” said Bean. “We’ll be following everything very closely. Safety has to be a top concern. It does.”

Cummings added, “This is all contingent on the course of the pandemic. Should community infection rates rise rapidly, we will adjust quickly and may have to shut down things very quickly … I think we’ve got to give ourselves the discretion to take each game one at a time and make the determination about safety and the ability to compete.”


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