Winthrop boys basketball coach Todd MacArthur goes over details of a drill during the Ramblers’ first basketball practice on Monday evening. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The doldrums of skills and drills finally gave way to the more tantalizing tandem of offense and defense Monday, when high school winter sports teams in 12 of the state’s 16 counties were finally able to hold team-based practices.

At the Winthrop girls basketball practice, first-year co-coach Jess Merrill said there was a noticeable increase in energy compared to the Ramblers’ pre-holiday skill-building and conditioning sessions.

Winthrop boys basketball coach Todd MacArthur disinfects a rack of basketballs during the middle of the Ramblers’ first basketball practice of the season on Monday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“There’s only so much you can do over and over with the skills and drills,” Merrill said, “so being able to change it up a bit and really give the girls a focus as to what we’re going to be focusing on this season — I think the girls were really excited about that, and they were definitely working hard today. I mean, we’re still working on conditioning with the masks, but, yeah, the energy was pretty high, it was a good atmosphere.”

Athletes and coaches will be required to wear face coverings during practices and games this season.

Merrill, who also coaches the school’s field hockey and girls tennis teams, is sharing head-coaching duties with Kelsey Ouellette, who was previously the program’s JV coach. Merrill said she and Ouellette are on the same page with just about everything and the players have been receptive to their workshare, which is “encouraging moving forward.”

The Ramblers will have to move forward quickly, with a scrimmage scheduled for next Tuesday, followed by the regular-season opener at home against Hall-Dale next Thursday.

“I mean, we’ve been going a month now with just staring at each other at practice, so it’ll be nice to get going, and we’ll be growing as we go. Of course I’d like to have more time, but it is what it is,” Merrill said.

The players were excited when the coaches shared the season schedule with them.

“It’s putting it more into perspective that, oh, we do have something coming up. We’re practicing for something, we’re playing for something,” Merrill said. “So we’re excited.”

Spruce Mountain athletic director Marc Keller said COVID-19 has already forced changes to the winter season schedule.

“I think everything is going to be weekly changes based on county color code,” Keller said. “Right now, Buckfield has said they can’t play the first game, so we have already made an adjustment to that — moving things around a little bit.”

Buckfield is in Oxford County, which is one of the four counties, along with Androscoggin, Cumberland and York, designated as “yellow” due to the coronavirus. “Yellow” schools are unable to hold athletic activities and coaches and players can only meet virtually. Schools in “green” counties were allowed to begin skills and drills practices as early as Dec. 7.

Some Franklin County teams are already planning out-of-conference matchups. For instance, Mt. Abram’s hoops teams will play four such games, to go along with their eight scheduled Mountain Valley Conference matchups.

Kyle Dionne goes up for a shot during a drill at Winthrop’s first basketball practice on Monday evening. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“It is a Franklin County conference,” Mt. Abram athletic director Kristina Stevens said. “It is Rangeley, Valley and Forest Hills and also Carrabec and Madison … in this other league as well. So we can get all of our 12 games in.

“Our games run through February break. So, who knows? Some of our games are in Oxford County. If Oxford County doesn’t go ‘green,’ then we will lose all those games. You are kind of in a scramble to pick up those games as counties don’t turn ‘green.’”

The Rangeley games are already in question. As of Monday, the Rangeley Lakes school board has only approved practices.

“We are practicing, but a final decision has not been made in regards if we will play games,” Rangeley boys basketball coach Jeff LaRochelle said.

Spruce Mountain’s athletes had to fight for their chance to play games, with the school board overturning its initial decision to not allow winter sports.

Mt. Abram’s student-athletes knew much earlier that they would have a season. The school board made its decision in the fall to move forward with the winter season.

“We never revisited it. The school board didn’t vote again because we just determined status quo,” Stevens said. “We are going to keep moving forward, following all the guidelines. They were fine with that. We are hopeful, too, for our middle school sports. We are determining that this week.”

Mt. Blue, another Franklin County school, also is on track to open its winter seasons next week.

Logan Baird works against the defense Noah Grube during a drill at Winthrop’s first basketball practice on Monday evening. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We are still on, as of right now,” Mt. Blue athletic director Chad Brackett said. “We are waiting to see what happens as a result of vacation, but right now all signs are pointing towards playing basketball (scrimmages) on Tuesday, Jan. 12 against the Lawrence Bulldogs. The school board is on board with us.”

Mt. Blue’s basketball programs began skills and drills practices on Dec. 14. The teams started intra-squad competition Monday.

Like basketball, in which a typical postseason is out of the question, there will also be no state championships for skiing, according to Brackett.

“I think some people may have some ideas on maybe regional (basketball) tournaments,” Brackett said. “There will be no state championship for skiing. The KVACs (and MVCs) will be the culmination of the high school season.”

Monmouth athletic director Steve Bell said his district’s school board also approved winter sports — in the Mustangs’ case, basketball and cheering — “under all the mandates from MPA and the state.”

“We have had great participation, but … with increased cases and the ever-present possibility for our county (Kennebec) to go ‘yellow,’ everything is in a state of flux all the time,” Bell said. “We are scheduled to start games on the 14th of January, but, again, that all depends on a great deal of factors. Hopefully things will settle down soon.”

Noah Grube goes for a layup during a drill as Sam Fuller, left, watches during the Winthrop boys basketball team’s first practice of the season Monday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Winthrop’s cooperative boys hockey team with Maranacook, Lawrence, Madison and Spruce Mountain — the Capital Region Hawks — will have to wait an extra day to start its team-based practices, but first-year coach Richard Fortin said he is proud of the “work that (the players) are all willing to put in to give us a season, even if it’s not the season that we wish we could have.”

“Obviously hockey is not a sport that can be played 6 feet apart,” Fortin said, “so we needed to get really creative with our drills and our workouts to make it happen, but everyone pulled together and we made it happen so we could be on the ice.”

“When we start our normal team practices (Tuesday),” he added, “we will still be doing it with care and caution, but we are excited to get to some game-like drills and scenarios on the ice.”

Winthrop boys basketball coach Todd MacArthur, whose defending Class C state champion Ramblers took the court after Merrill and Ouellette’s program Monday night, had his team prepared to do “lots of live competition” in its first team-based practice, including anywhere from 2-on-2 all the way up to full 5-on-5 drills, as well as incorporating both offensive and defensive sets.

Following the Winthrop girls team’s practice, Merrill said that being able to do more than work on skills was a welcomed change.

“It was nice to just be able to do something different,” she said.


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