Cheverus High track and field Coach John Wilkinson watches as sophomore Taylor Tory, left, and junior Andrew Griffiths, right, take part in a practice last week in Portland. Wilkinson is apprehensive about whether state championships can be held at the end of the season. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Maine Principals’ Association announced in mid-March that there would be state championships for all high school sports this spring – joyful news for track and field coaches and athletes who have been unable to compete since the winter season of 2019-20.

But championship meets for track and field – with hundreds of athletes, coaches, officials and spectators – present logistical challenges unlike those of other sports during the coronavirus pandemic.

The MPA has yet to come up with a format for state meets leaving some veteran coaches wondering if the meets are even feasible. The state meets are scheduled for June 5, but no host sites have been announced for Class A and Class B. Class C would be held at Brewer High.

MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said last week he is “cautiously optimistic” state meets will be held this spring, repeating the word “cautiously.”

“There is no question it’s different (for track and field), just because of the sheer numbers. A Class A baseball championship between coaches and athletes has 50 people. A state track meet is well in excess of 200 to 300 athletes,” Burnham said.

The MPA sent track coaches a 12-question survey asking for input on everything from spectators and qualifying standards to whether relays should be eliminated. Completed surveys are due back April 30, then the MPA’s Track Committee will meet on May 13 to try to craft a state meet with COVID-19 safety protocols. No other spring sport is using a survey to come up with a format for championships.

Some changes the MPA can already envision: Qualifying standards likely will be made more stringent, cutting the number of athletes in each event down from around 30. Social distancing between teams and spectators will be mandated. So, too, will masks, even for distance events. 

“We will look at cutting down the number of people. If there are fewer athletes, there are fewer spectators,” Burnham said. “And I think there is going to be some discussion around the relays, that being the event with the greatest number of athletes gathering.”

Burnham said while some schools are hesitant to host an event with hundreds of people during the coronavirus pandemic, the MPA has identified some willing hosts. 

“I do think we’ll be able to move forward with this. We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t try for the kids,” Burnham said.

However, track and field coaches remain confused about what a season-ending meet might look like, frustrated that the state meets remain up in the air, and wondering if they can be held at all.

“Every time you turn around, another school is shutting down (because of COVID-19). I know three teams in the league that have been shut down. How many meets are we actually going to have?” said Thornton Academy boys’ track Coach George Mendros.

Cheverus Head Coach John Wilkinson said given how long it’s taking to design the format for state meets, it doesn’t seem likely they will happen. Wilkinson has 40 athletes out for track – a good turnout for Cheverus in a normal year. But when parents ask Wilkinson about a Class A state meet, he doesn’t know what to say.

“My biggest concern right now, not to be pessimistic, but we don’t have a site for a state championship yet. Nothing has been established. It’s a little disconcerting,” said Wilkinson, a coach of 40 years.

Coach John Wilkinson watches athletes do warm-up drills during practice at Cheverus High last week. He has 40 athletes out on the boys and girls team – a strong turnout in a normal year. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Others wonder if state meets can be held given the recent spike in COVID-19 cases across Maine, particularly among younger people.

“I really worry about the number of people going away for (spring vacation) at my school and other schools,” said Scarborough Coach Derek Veilleux, whose school went fully remote last week because of a sharp rise in COVID cases. “It’s not a good recipe for success.”

Like many coaches, Falmouth’s Jorma Kurry is concerned about the mask mandate for distance runners, particularly as temperatures rise throughout the spring. But the prospect of state championships being canceled is his greatest concern, he said.

“If they are not held, the kids will handle it with grace. But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing,” Kurry said.

Some coaches are focused on day-to-day training rather than end-of-season goals for their athletes, just in case the state meets cannot be held.

“It certainly is a relief to have a season,” said John Caterina, the Gorham girls’ coach for the past 25 years. “But we are all waiting for the other shoe to drop. Mentally, you have to prepare for what might not happen. The kids have gotten good at that. But is that healthy? Even those kids who outwardly seem to be doing well, I’m just not sure. I’m keeping an eye on it.”

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