Monmouth High junior Jake Umberhind throws the discus in the spring and will be back on the football field this fall. “I’m super excited for next football season,” he says. “I’m so ready, I’ve been preparing myself this spring, this summer for the upcoming fall season, I want to show out.” Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

High school sports are the latest activity starting to return to normal as Maine lifts most of its pandemic restrictions.

The Maine Principals’ Association announced Wednesday afternoon that it has reopened all interscholastic activities. That means tackle football and wrestling, the two sports that were not contested at Maine high schools this school year, will be back for the 2021-22 academic year.

“I think it’s pretty awesome to know for the first time in pretty much two years that we’ll be back able to play football again,” said Finn O’Connell, a junior at South Portland High. “It’s pretty exciting to see that things are slowly going back to the way they have been and football will be back in the fall.”

The announcement, sent in a memo to schools, came two days after the state retired its Community Sports Guidelines. Earlier on Wednesday, Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services announced, “the Maine Principals’ Association will have the ability to decide on fall sports this year.”

The memo, signed by MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said:

“It is with great excitement that the Maine Principals’ Association announces a reopening of all interscholastic activities in Maine.  As our state moves to following of U.S. CDC guidelines, we will continue to work with the Maine Department of Education, the Maine School Board and Superintendent’s Association, and the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators’ Association to assist schools in developing their individual school plans to allow for a safe reopening plan for their athletes and school staff.  These plans will look at current requirements and recommendations for schools as well as Maine’s Executive Orders.”

The Community Sports Guidelines had been the key document guiding decisions about school sports during the pandemic. It categorized football and wrestling as high-risk sports that should not hold competitions.

“It is a big time relief,” said Rich Buzzell, athletic director at football powerhouse Marshwood High in South Berwick. “I’d say if it wasn’t 88 degrees I would have attempted a somersault. I’m happy for our program, for the kids, for the coaches.

“Now with the Community Sports Guidelines gone, and the MPA to open up all sports, it’s time to get down and dirty, get in the weight room and prep for next season.”

Marshwood quarterback Aidan Sullivan agreed.

“We’ve been waiting this past year, waiting last year, and for them to come out and say every sport is available just gets me excited and ready to play,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also felt relief that a decision had finally been made about football.

“I just felt a lot of stress this past year with football not happening and now it’s a big weight off our shoulders,” Sullivan said.

Last fall when the MPA gave football the green light, state health and education agencies overruled the decision. From that point on, interscholastic sports have been tailored to meet the mandates in the Community Sports Guidelines. While the guidelines evolved over time to allow for greater athletic opportunities, football and wrestling were still considered a high-risk sports and therefore not allowed to stage competitions.

Maine is one of just four states that did not have tackle football in the 2020-21 school year. High schools were allowed to play 7-on-7 flag football last fall.

“It’s frustrating; it took so long, especially Maine and New Mexico were (two of the only states) in the United States not to be OK, (to play last season),” Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale coach Dave St. Hilaire said. “We certainly saw signs we were going to prepare for it (this season). To finally get the word is certainly a relief for all of the football fans, players, and coaches.”

As also happened with football, the MPA repeatedly delayed the start of the high school wrestling season before canceling it in late February.

Portland/South Portland wrestling coach Tony Napolitano is worried the lost season will have a long-term negative effects on a sport already struggling to build participation.

“I’m hopeful that this will get more kids excited about wrestling but I kind of feel like kids that were at a certain level were able to find some way to compete this season, for clubs or whatever,” Napolitano said. “The newer wrestlers, or the ones who are not year-round wrestlers, they were the ones who really got hurt by missing a season and in the state of Maine where we don’t have a ton of wrestlers to begin with, those are the ones we need to make sure we get back.”

It is unclear, however, how soon everything about high school sports will return to normal. Gov. Janet Mills requires masks to be worn inside schools, which could impact indoor sports such as basketball and volleyball in the coming school year. Social distancing measures are in place for spring sports. For example, umpires cannot stand directly behind the catcher in baseball and softball.

Thornton Academy junior Cole Michaud says the uncertainty about football had been taking a toll on offseason workouts. “We couldn’t get as many kids motivated as usual,” he says. “Now that we can play in the fall, it’s going to change.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Even before the MPA’s announcement on Wednesday, there was rising optimism among football players that they would be able to play in the fall, given the retirement of the Community Sports Guidelines.

“With spring sports in full bloom it’s looking good for us in the fall,” said Cole Michaud, a junior at Thornton Academy who played tight end and linebacker in 2019.

Michaud added that the positive news will encourage positive behavior.

“It’s really interesting because we do offseason lifts with the team and we try to get as many guys in as possible but this year it was different. We couldn’t get as many kids motivated as usual,” he said. “Now that we can play in the fall, it’s going to change.”

Others athletes said playing and watching other sports, and recent relaxing of safety protocols were encouraging.

“If everyone can hang out outside with no masks, I think we should be able to hang out and play football with no masks,” said Owen Pushard, a linebacker/running back at Gardiner who will be a senior in the fall. “I don’t see how we couldn’t be. Even if we had to wear them, as long as we have a season.”

Jake Umberhind, a junior at Monmouth and two-way lineman for the Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale football team, said, “I’m super excited for next football season. I’m so ready, I’ve been preparing myself this spring, this summer for the upcoming fall season, I want to show out.”

Umberhind was also a cheerleader this winter.

“People are touching, I’m throwing girls and we’re cheering together, all in close spaces. When that happened, I got really optimistic for football season next fall,” Umberhind said.

Kennebunk junior David York, a starting fullback/linebacker as a sophomore, grew encouraged about football this fall as more Mainers got vaccinated and the number COVID cases started to drop.

“I was totally optimistic, through everything with vaccines getting rolled out,” York said. “Once everything started going smoothly, I felt there’s no way we won’t have football this year.”

Knowing there will be a season, instead of hoping, is significant, he said.

“People are able to prepare for the upcoming season. It won’t be any last-minute thing like has happened this year with other sports,” York said. “To know it’s full-go, full steam ahead, we can prepare ourselves and our minds for the upcoming season.”

St. Hilaire is happy to have come clarity before the school year ended.

Well our summer workouts are predicated on what we are going to have in the fall,” St. Hilaire said. “Are we able to plyometrics, are we able to lift, are we going to do 7-on-7 and all that. It helps with the planning and once I read everything and see what’s out there for limitations, it will help formulate our summer workouts.” 

Sun Journal reporter Nathan Fournier and Central Maine Newspapers reporter Drew Bonifant contributed to this story.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.