Gray-New Gloucester junior basketball player Terell Claxton participates in the first day of winter sports practices as JV coach Wayne Martin watches Monday in Gray. Ryan Deschenes photo

Poland senior Jordyn Kohtala’s final high school basketball season was already the most unusual she’s experienced long before she got the call from the high school telling her she’d been exposed to COVID-19.

Kohtala entered quarantine Saturday and was awaiting results after being tested on Monday. She’d yet to experience any symptoms, and even braved the chill to step outside and get a few shots up in her driveway.

“Just yesterday (Sunday), I went outside and shot some hoops because I was bored out of my mind,” she said.

Quarantine wasn’t the only thing keeping Kohtala, a returning starter at shooting guard and the Knights’ lone senior, from joining her teammates and high school athletes of all winter sports in much of the state for the first day of individual skills workouts. Poland is in Androscoggin County, one of four counties the state designated as “yellow” last week due to an elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission. With after-school activities put on hold until the county returns to “green,” the Knights’ contact with first-year head coach Jacob Webb, for now, will be strictly via Zoom meetings.

About 14 miles south on Route 26 in “green” Cumberland County, Gray-New Gloucester senior Wyatt Kenney was preparing to enter the high school’s gym for the second of two Monday sessions (freshman and sophomores in the first, upperclassmen in the second) with boys basketball head coach Ryan Deschenes and his staff.

The Patriots planned to work on the fundamentals of basketball — shooting, dribbling and conditioning — in the gym. Kenney, their lone senior, was still mindful of other athletes in the state who weren’t fortunate enough to have the same opportunity.

“I know we’re all excited to get going, and hopefully all of the counties in the area will open up because I know how much it means to the kids,” Kenney said.

The Maine Principals’ Association’s announcement last week that team practices would be pushed back from the original starting date of Dec. 14 to Jan. 4 meant coaches wouldn’t have to bear down on the accelerator to get players ready for team activities. Deschenes said this week of “skills and drills” won’t be quite as intensive as he originally planned.

But considering the uncertainty of the future under the pandemic, he doesn’t want to take the opportunity for granted, either.

Gray-New Gloucester’s Wyatt Kenney keeps the ball away from Yarmouth’s Ilgren Ishimwe during a January 2020 game at Gray-New Gloucester High School. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We’ll see how it goes the first few days and then try to get creative as we continue moving forward the rest of the month,” Deschenes said.

“I think this is an opportunity to give the guys a lot of touches,” he said. “We’re one of the schools that didn’t have anything this summer, so I’ve seen the guys once since March outside of Zoom. So, just being on the court, I’m thankful for that.”

Outside of a few summer workouts, Webb has had little personal contact with his players. It’s a tough way to begin a tenure as head coach, but he feels fortunate because he served the past three years as the Knights’ JV and varsity assistant coach.

“Luckily, I have a history with them,” Webb said. “We know each other, so I can have conversations with each and every one of those girls on what they need to work on as well as I know. It’s a better situation than coming in cold would be.”

The coaches and players said they are all optimistic that they will have some sort of basketball season in 2021. Webb noted basketball has a bigger window of opportunity than many other sports because the season can be pushed back deeper into the winter and possibly even spring. But he still worries about the social impact on kids who have had so little time together. He also knows that with no preseason scrimmages, athletes will be under the gun to be in playing shape whenever regular season games do begin.

“(Conditioning) is a big emphasis all the time. I know a bunch of them have already been working out on their own, trying to make sure they’re ready,” Webb said. “But it’s going to have to be an emphasis and we’re going to have to put in the extra work when we can get back.”

No matter how much of an emphasis it is in the preseason, Deschenes said that nothing can replicate the conditioning that comes from playing games.

“Right now, we’re having one week of practice, full-contact practices, before we start playing,” Deschenes said. “If we have those four weeks (of skills and drills), I think we can build up to (full practices), but there’s only so much you can do. You need to play. True basketball condition takes a couple of weeks of playing the game.”

As the lone seniors on their respective squads, Kenney and Kohtala acknowledge that leadership will be very important in helping inexperienced players get ready and stay ready.

“I know we’ll all rally and we’ll be all right,” Kenney said. “We’ll just get better. We like to shoot a lot of 3s and run-and-gun, so hopefully we’ll all get better at that.”

The MPA has left the door open for postseason games in winter sports, and the Western Maine Conference, which is home to both Gray-New Gloucester and Poland, has discussed holding a conference tournament, if it’s allowed.

Deschenes said it will be good for players and teams to have that to look forward to, but his message to his players on Monday was to live in the moment.

“It’s a cliche, but play every day like it’s your last day,” he said.

Kenney played soccer in the fall, when the MPA did not permit postseason games for any team sport. He said the lack of a tournament left him with a bit of a hollow feeling when the season ended.

“When I played soccer, it was a fun season, but I definitely look forward to, at the end of the season, having some kind of tournament or something,” he said. “Not that we didn’t play for anything in soccer, but it was hard at the end of the season (without a tournament). It was like, ‘That’s it. There we go.’ It’s nice to have that carrot there.”

Kohtala, whose spring track and field season was wiped out by the pandemic, is keeping her goals for a basketball season a bit more narrow in scope.

“I’ve tried to imagine what (a basketball season is) going to look like,” Kohtala said, “but, frankly, everything I’ve been thinking that’s going to be happening … I mean, this year’s been just been full of changes.”

“It’s crazy,” she added, “but I just hope for, at least, even if it was just one game, I really want that one last moment on the court my senior year, because it’s been such a huge part of my life.  I just want that last taste of something basketball.”


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