Sophomore Riley St. Pierre removes weights while working out in the weight room at Marshwood High in South Berwick on Thursday. St. Pierre played on the school’s football team as a freshman, but the Hawks couldn’t play tackle football this school year because of Maine’s COVID-19 safety protocols. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Marshwood High football coach Alex Rotsko looked around the nearly deserted weight room on Thursday. Only one football player was using the facility.

“It is kind of sad,” Rotsko said. “It almost feels like I’m starting over, like when I came here nine years ago.”

Under Rotsko, Marshwood has been one of the state’s premier programs, winning five of the last six Class B titles.

He knows there are several reasons why he’s not seeing normal participation in the school’s weight room this spring, including fewer in-person students during the pandemic and no options for late bus transportation.

Marshwood football coach Alex Rotsko: “Here we are in May and we haven’t played in a year and a half and we still don’t know whether we’re going to play this fall.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

But for Rotsko, there’s another factor causing the empty weight room: Tackle football is still not approved for this fall.

Maine was one of only four states (along with Vermont, Connecticut and Hawaii) that did not offer tackle football during the 2020-21 school year. Of those four, Maine is the only state yet to approve the sport for the fall of 2021.

Football teams in Maine did play 7-on-7 flag football last fall, and a tackle season was considered for the spring. That idea was scuttled in late January.

“Just stringing it out the way we did last year and now here we are in May and we haven’t played in a year and a half and we still don’t know whether we’re going to play this fall,” Rotsko said.

Football and wrestling, the only sports not played in Maine in 2020-21, are still classified as high-risk in the state’s Community Sports Guidelines and not allowed to have competitions. The Maine Principals’ Association has based its COVID-19 policies off the Community Sports Guidelines, making adjustments after the state has made changes.

Coaches interviewed for this story believe Maine’s key health agencies will eventually change or retire the Community Sports Guidelines and the MPA will then quickly green-light tackle football.

“The MPA Football Committee met on May 4 and the (MPA) Sports Medicine Committee met the next day and it was clear in both of those meetings – and the overarching theme was – those two committees support a complete return to tackle football. Unanimously,” said Dan O’Connell, a member of both committees and the football coach and athletic director at John Bapst in Bangor.

But Rotsko and other coaches worry that the longer it takes to approve tackle football, the harder it will be to motivate players who are uncertain about a season this fall.

“You’ll always have kids who will work their butt off no matter what,” Rotsko said, “but a lot will say, ‘Look at all the efforts this year’s seniors put in and they didn’t get an opportunity to play. Am I going to do this for now two years and then find out I’m not going to play?’ That’s an awful lot to ask of a kid. And a coach.”

Cony High Coach B.L. Lippert agrees.

“A lot of our (athletes) are football-slash-wrestling players. They have missed a lot of time, and rather than sitting around, they’ve got new hobbies, jobs or whatnot,” he said.

“We might have to convince them to come back to football.”

A DIFFERENT LANDSCAPE TODAY

When a group of Maine’s health and education agencies shut down football for the fall of 2020, there were wails of protest from coaches, players and parents.

But the decision, in the context of the time, was not particularly surprising.

The University of Maine and all of the state’s Division III college football programs canceled their fall seasons. Most colleges in Maine had no fall sports at all. Among New England states, only New Hampshire played high school football. In total, 16 state high school associations, including California and many along the East coast, pushed football out of the fall season.

At the time, Maine’s designation of football as a high-risk sport was consistent with return-to-play guidance outlined by the National Federation of State High School Association.

The national federation, however, did away with sport-by-sport risk stratification in its COVID-19 safety protocols in early February. Instead, the federation emphasizes that the key factors to minimizing risk are where the sport is played (outdoors versus indoors) and community transmission.

O’Connell said MPA leaders have requested a meeting with key state agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, and state superintendent and school board associations.

“We will continue to advocate for football and wrestling, but specifically advocate to take the risk factors out of the guidelines so we can get back to all sports,” O’Connell said.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said during Wednesday’s media briefing that the state plans to transition its COVID-19 prevention checklists, including the Community Sports Guidelines, from the current Maine-specific framework to U.S. CDC guidance. Lambrew said the immediate priority is to get the checklists related to businesses adjusted.

“When it comes to fall sports, we have some more work to do,” Lambrew said.

The Maine Athletic Trainers’ Association supports a full return for both football and wrestling.

“Being around the kids, we’ve seen the data that supports the fact that any transmission going on with this age group are not athletic transmissions. They’re coming from the community,” said John Ryan, the group’s president and the certified athletic trainer at South Portland.

A  year ago, there were football coaches who agreed with the decision to not play. It stood to reason that the sport’s close, physical contact on every play could contribute to virus spread. Also, there was a recognition that school leaders had to prioritize student and teacher safety in an academic setting over getting onto a field on Friday night.

“I wasn’t one of those coaches out there saying we should play,” said Cheverus Coach Mike Vance, noting, “I didn’t want to be end up on the wrong side of history. I was worried about the health of our kids and any family members who may have had health issues.”

TIME TO GREEN-LIGHT ALL ATHLETICS

Now, there is considerably more evidence that sports – particularly education-based athletics – can be played safely.

“We’ve played indoor sports and that’s done well. We’ve played contact sports and that’s done well,” Vance said. “My opinion is, it’s time to green-light athletics – all athletics. And I think we’ve clearly seen across the nation that the vast majority of high school football programs are moving forward already.”

Under the current state guidelines, football practices and even intrasquad scrimmage are allowed. So even if the decision on football drags on, coaches can set up typical training sessions in the summer, including 7-on-7 passing leagues and attending football camps.

“There was a long stretch last summer where we couldn’t even use a ball,” Lippert reminded. “We may be a little limited in terms of how many are in the weight room at one time, but there’s nothing at this point we absolutely cannot do” in terms of normal summer preparation.

Maine is welcoming tourists from around the world this summer. Starting Monday, outdoor venues for sports and entertainment can open to full capacity and Maine’s mask mandate will be lifted, though masks will still be required inside schools.

For O’Connell, those decisions by state agencies to return to nearly normal pre-pandemic conditions can be applied to education-based activities.

“Anyone from any other state and across the world can come here. Those same kids who might be playing football on a Friday night are waiting on those folks in the restaurants, bars and stores where they shop,” O’Connell said. “If they can do that to help bolster the economy, then I feel like on Friday nights they ought to be able to (put on) helmets and get after it.”


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