Gray-New Gloucester varsity boys basketball coach Ryan Deschenes knows his players want to be together.

Because Cumberland County is designated “yellow” under the state’s health advisory system for schools, Deschenes and the Patriots, after being permitted initially to do skills and drills together when the county was “green,” are doing all team activities via Zoom.

While schools in counties currently designated green started playing regular-season games this week, Gray-New Gloucester is now near completion of its fourth week of virtual meetings and holding its breath that Cumberland County returns to green on Friday when the state announces its updated designations.

Maine Principal Association guidelines prevent schools in yellow counties from holding practices or competitions.

If Cumberland County stays yellow, Deschenes isn’t sure what he can tell his players that would inspire them to move forward.

“There’s a reason why long-distance relationships never pan out and that’s what I feel like I have with my kids right now,” he said. “You can only Zoom so much. I can only text and call my kids so much. I need to see my kids in person to truly get engaged.”

Basketball coaches in yellow counties are frustrated that they can not even hold skills and drills practices, particularly in light of a story on Wednesday that revealed the state is allowing club programs in winter sports to decide whether to resume practices in yellow counties.

“I think it’s a great winter for the youth and middle school to utilize club and AAU,” Deschenes said. “But obviously, us coaches in southern Maine want to know why we can’t go. It’s not a feeling that AAU should shut down. No. They should continue doing it safely.”

“It was a little frustrating,” Sacopee Valley assistant basketball coach and varsity outdoor track coach Ben Murphy said. “I’m in a yellow (Oxford) county with kids that are just aching to play and we can’t. To have it go back-and-forth, have two separate rules, doesn’t make a lot of sense. We should all be doing the same thing.”

Most coaches interviewed by the Sun Journal said they are glad their players may now have a chance to compete. But they are confused by what they see as a mixed message at best and double-standard at worst and frustrated at a seeming unwillingness to recognize date showing transmission of the virus is minimal in athletics.

“What gets rammed down our throats as teachers is transparency, letting everybody know what’s expected, plan, check and adjust,” said Edward Little boys varsity coach Mike Adams, also a business technology teacher at the high school. “As a teacher, you plan, you check to see how you’re doing with that plan, and then if things aren’t working and kids are failing or not doing well or not learning what they’re supposed to, then we adjust.”

“I don’t think you’re seeing any of this (with what) is going on right now,” he added.

Coaches said they fully comprehend the seriousness of the pandemic and they also understood the restrictions for fall sports because schools and state officials were nervous about kids being back in school.

“At the same time, there wasn’t the evidence from kids being back in school yet, there wasn’t evidence of sports being played safely yet. But now there is,” Deschenes said. “We’re five months into the school year. Fall sports successfully happened. Winter sports are happening, right now, in 12 counties. The proof is there. The transmission is from people gathering in houses.”

Freeport varsity girls basketball coach Seth Farrington said several of his players are exploring joining club teams or possibly even a full team of Freeport players, which he would not be allowed to coach due to MPA rules. He supports them finding alternatives, but doesn’t think they’ll find a safer option than if they were practicing and playing at their own school.

“They’re going to be safer in the gym with 12 kids from Freeport than they are travelling across counties and playing people that may even be from out-of-state,” Farrington said. “If they can sit together for lunch every day and they can have 12 in the classroom or whatever it is, I don’t see what’s the difference between that and 12 in the gymnasium. For some reason, it all changes after the final bell rings.”

“I’m glad that kids have the opportunity to play,” Adams said. “But we’re talking about safety, and so now you bring in kids from every single community in the state of Maine, some of them yellow, and bringing all of these kids together from all of these different cohorts. Whereas if we could work with just our kids, we’re just keeping our cohorts together. You’re not potentially infecting eight communities.”

The long-term physical, emotional and educational affects of being forced to stay apart for athletics is taking a concerning toll on their kids, coaches said.

Some are more vulnerable than others, particularly to long-term damage.

“The kids that I’m really concerned about are the kids that are only in school because of sports, the kids that are failing, they’ve given up, and they’re not going to school and they’re not doing work,” Adams said. “Some of those kids don’t have the coping skills to maybe ever get back. And we’re going to feel the ramifications of this for a long time, I think. It can affect them for the rest of their lives.”

During a recent online meeting with his team, Farrington asked his players to briefly describe how they think COVID-19 has affected them.

“The words I heard were ‘engagement,’ staying engaged not just in sports but in school,” Farrington said. “Another word was ‘procrastinate,’ ‘loss of drive.’ A couple of kids talked about ‘hope,’ ‘something to look forward to every day.’ These were the words that they’re using that I wrote down. I think we should do all we can to have a sports season because we could do it safely.”

If Farrington and coaches put themselves through that exercise, another word they use might be ‘jealous’ as they watch teams from other parts in the state on game internet streams. But some of the coaches said they would be fine with not being able to compete if the color designations are adjusted to allow socially-distant practices

Players have already shown in online workouts that they are willing and eager to accept new protocols for basketball, such as mask-wearing, the coaches said. They believe there is no reason that even with a yellow designation they should not be able to gather together, even if it’s not for games.

“Most of us are just trying to adjust yellow to practice. We’re trying to find common ground,” Deschenes said. “We would like to play games right now but we’ll just adjust and go in the gym. Whoever is really proactive with this yellow shutting us down wants it to be yellow and you do nothing. But if they allow us to practice,  I think it would make a lot of kids, parents and coaches really, really happy.”

“Maybe that’s enough to keep some of these kids going. We get some face-to-face contact with these kids and I can say ‘Hey, you’ve got to work on that biology grade,” Adams said.

The rules for yellow counties were put into place for good reason, the coaches said, but coaches are finding it more and more difficult to explain why their players have two contrasting sets of rules for the same sport.

“It’s okay to look at the facts and and the signs, so to speak, and make some adjustments to the rules that were put into place at the beginning,” Farrington said.

“You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem,” Farrington said. “Which category do you want to be in?”

 

 

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