Gardiner coach Mike Gray talks to his players during a timeout of a March 4, 2021 game against Mt. Blue in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The Gardiner Area High School girls basketball team spent part of its winter break competing against tough competition in a school-sanctioned trip to Florida.

Now, the Tigers aren’t playing anyone, at least during this week, because of COVID-19 safety protocols.

The school athletics department posted a message on Facebook that the program was shutting down, meaning games Tuesday against Erskine Academy and Thursday against Brewer were being rescheduled. Three days earlier, the team returned from a trip to play in a basketball tournament in Orlando, having flown down on Dec. 26 and returned on New Year’s Eve.

The shutdown occurs while COVID-19 cases are soaring throughout the country due to the omicron variant. The number of patients hospitalized in Maine jumped from 340 to 369 on Monday and the seven-day average for new cases in the United States climbed to 316,000 on the same day. In Florida, according to the Miami Herald, the state has broken records for daily case numbers each day since Christmas Eve.

The virus has had an impact on the local sports scene as well, with a growing list of teams pulling out of games due to positive tests on their rosters. Gardiner joined that list on Monday, with principal Chad Kempton saying that the shutdown was the safest course to take. Gardiner also had to call off a hockey game due to positive tests.

“With a lot of teams, there are times when there are spikes in cases that you’ve got to take a pause and shut things down,” he said. “Games can be rescheduled. There are several other schools that are having to do the same thing we are. … It’s unfortunate for any team, it doesn’t matter what team it is or what school it is, it’s unfortunate that there’s a disruption there. But given the number of cases that are here in Maine and across the country, it’s not really a surprise.”

The trip makes Gardiner’s circumstance unique, but Kempton said it can’t be blamed for the result, pointing to the virus’ unfettered spread in Maine.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily a factor in this,” he said. “That trip really, to me, is irrelevant. … You can get it going down to Hannaford as you can going to the airport. … I don’t see anybody traveling as being reckless. I’m working with nurses; yesterday we spent the entire day processing positive cases and getting kids set up for remote learning. A very small percentage of that was athletes.”

The Tigers played three games in Orlando, going 0-3 against two teams from Florida and one from New Jersey. Two of those contests were one-score games going into the final minutes, while a third, against Riverview High School of Sarasota, came against the eighth-ranked team in Florida.

Gardiner girls basketball coach Mike Gray and some of his players react after a made shot during a Class A/B central Maine tournament semifinal game last season against Maranacook. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Speaking Sunday, Tigers head coach Mike Gray said the trip presented Gardiner with a chance to test itself against high-end competition.

“It was just a great experience for the kids to kind of get out of their comfort zone and get out of the teams they already know and play entirely different teams in an entirely different setup,” he said. “I think what I liked was they didn’t back down. They just played really loose and relaxed. We weren’t stressed about Heal points, we weren’t stressed about what everyone in the stands was thinking. There was barely anyone there. … They were just out there playing.”

Gardiner junior Savannah Brown said playing good teams can only help the team going forward.

“The competition is so good down there, it really built our team up to play back up here,” she said. “It gave us good experience. … When we play Lawrence again and when we play Skowhegan, there were a bunch of teams down there that had that one girl. So it’s good for us to really play down there so we can get used to it and guard Jaycie (Christopher) or guard Hope (Bouchard).”

The trip, which included trips to Universal Studios and an Orlando Magic game, also provided the team with a bonding experience.

“Spending a week straight with the same girls can go one of two ways,” junior Lizzy Gruber said. “Our team definitely handled it really well. A lot of teams would just fall apart, and our team, we all get along. We all hung out together. … Being able to connect on a different level was really awesome to see.”

Regarding the shutdown, the Gardiner players said they’re looking ahead.

“We’re ready for the next game and we’ll come to play,” Brown said.

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