University of Maine head coach Amy Vachon huddles with her team during game against Duke at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor in November 2018. The women’s basketball team is scheduled to begin its season at Providence College on Thursday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The University of Maine’s winter sports teams will resume games this week, ending a two-week pause on athletic competition because of positive COVID-19 tests, the school announced Tuesday.

UMaine paused its competitive schedules for basketball and ice hockey teams on Nov. 24 after several athletes across multiple teams tested positive for COVID-19 based on testing conducted by the university. Teams were allowed to practice during the past two weeks.

Over the past 14 days, winter program athletes, coaches and staff have been tested for COVID 1,020 times – with each test returning negative, according to a University of Maine press release.

“Our return to competition has prioritized the safety of our student-athletes and Maine communities,” UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said in the release. “We are incredibly proud of how hard and responsibly our student-athletes have prepared for this season.”

Across Maine, the virus has continued to surge. Over the past 14 days, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 3,250 new COVID-19 cases and 50 deaths.

The spike in COVID-19 cases across the nation over the past two months has had a major impact on college sports.

In Division I men’s basketball, 41 programs are currently pausing their seasons, including top-ranked Gonzaga. Five teams, including Maine, are scheduled to resume activities as soon as Wednesday. Previously, 55 men’s basketball teams had come out of quarantine. Some, like Albany and DePaul, have been quarantined twice. There are 350 Division I men’s basketball teams.

“Our teams are thrilled to be able to resume their competitive seasons,” UMaine Athletics Director Ken Ralph said in the school’s release. “The students have worked hard to stay safe while preparing physically for their seasons. It will be exciting for all Black Bear fans to see their teams (in action) this weekend.”

The women’s basketball team will be the first team to return, at Providence College on Thursday and then at the University of Rhode Island on Friday.

Head coach Amy Vachon said she wasn’t surprised at the decision, given the number of tests the teams had gone through with all negative results.

“I think our administration realized what a great job our players have been doing,” she said. “We’ve been tested all those times with not one positive yet. Our players have been making great decisions.

“There’s a way to (keep safe), you have to be really, really careful and our players have. I’m so pleased and happy for them and I’m thankful to Ken and President Ferrini-Mundy and everyone who had a hand in this. It’s hard. It’s been a long couple of weeks. It’s nice to have some good news.”

Both the men’s and women’s ice hockey teams will be at the University of New Hampshire for a Friday-Saturday series. Times for the games are to be announced. The men’s team had been scheduled to play its two-game series in Orono, but those games have been shifted to Durham, New Hampshire.

The men’s basketball team already had its game at Fordham on Saturday canceled because Fordham’s men’s team is in a COVID-19 pause. The men’s team is scheduled to open its season with two games at Hartford on Dec. 19-20.

Maine’s Community Sports Guidelines, which prohibit teams from traveling out of state for competitions, do not pertain to college and professional sports.

Vachon said the women’s basketball team had been preparing as if it were going to play on Thursday and will be ready for Providence College.

“Our game prep has been no different,” she said. “We’ve been thinking positively. But to actually be able to play against another team will be nice.”

When the pause in athletic competition was initiated, the Maine men’s basketball team was in Uncasville, Connecticut, preparing to play the University of Virginia the next day at Mohegan Sun. An initial test required by the Mohegan Tribe, which owns the casino property where college basketball teams from across the country were staying and competing, showed a men’s player had tested positive. A separate round of testing for all members of the men’s basketball team came back negative.

The only winter sports team to have played a game thus far is the women’s ice hockey team which split a pair of games at Holy Cross on Nov. 20-21. That weekend the men’s ice hockey team was supposed to host the University of Massachusetts. The men’s ice hockey games were postponed because the school had not finalized all its COVID safety protocols for games at Alfond Arena, according to Ralph.

There was no immediate word on when, or if, Maine will be hosting games. In its statement, the school said it “continues to monitor developments with the pandemic closely and assess opportunities to host home games in adherence with University of Maine System and public health guidance.”

Vachon didn’t seem to care where the games are played.

“As long as we get to play, we don’t care where we are,” she said. “If we have to play every game on the road this year, we’ll play every game on the road this year. It doesn’t matter. Our players just want to play.”

Staff writer Mike Lowe contributed to this story.

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