Monday marks the first day of practices in most sports, a year after games were delayed by one to two months because of the pandemic.
WELLS — Two significant things are making high school athletes and coaches smile as the winter season begins – even if those smiles are still hidden behind masks.
The season has started on time. And statewide championships are planned in all sports.
“Oh, we’re smiling. A hundred percent,” said Wells High senior point guard Grace Boucher a few minutes before she joined 23 other players in the gym for the Warriors’ first basketball practice on Monday.
Across Maine, most winter sports got under way on Monday, with the first competition scheduled for Dec. 10. (Girls’ ice hockey starts two weeks earlier, and begins on Friday.)
The players on Wells girls’ basketball team definitely have reason to smile when they think about what this season could bring. Boucher and senior Grace Ramsdell, a 5-foot-11 point forward who has signed a scholarship offer to play at Division I Merrimack College, are returning starters from Wells’ 2020 Class B state championship team. Seniors Leah Finn, Riley Hansen and Ruby McMinis and juniors Ava Kreie and Olivia Boucher are also returning from the title team. Last season in an abbreviated season, Wells was 11-1.
“It’s exciting to be able to come into a season on time and to be able to have the full season from November to February to kind of get ready and prepared and have that (championship) goal in mind,” Ramsdell said. “It’s going to be exciting. We’re going to work hard this season.”
In terms of operating high school sports during a pandemic – and clearly the pandemic continues, as Monday’s record number of COVID-19 related hospitalizations illustrates – this year stands as a stark contrast to the 2020-21 winter season.
A year ago, no games were played until Jan. 11 and schools in York, Cumberland, Androscoggin and Oxford counties had to wait almost a month longer. Fans were not allowed. The only championships held were virtual events in swimming and cheerleading. Indoor track was reduced to a few specialty event gatherings across the state and practices. Wrestling wasn’t held at all.
This year, all sports are a go, with masks, vaccinations and pooled testing strongly recommended by the Maine Principals’ Association.
While mask usage is not mandated by the MPA, the vast majority of school districts are making it a requirement for athletes, coaches and any person attending an indoor event.
One of the first things addressed by Wells girls’ basketball coach Don Abbott to his assembled group of 24 players was mask wearing. His message was simple.
“You need to wear the dang thing appropriately,” Abbott said.
Prior to the practice, Abbott noted his team last year had “an attitude of gratitude” for what they did get. He expects that approach to continue.
“We’re not going to dwell on the things we don’t have, and the things that are maybe a nuisance that we have to do. We’re just going to relish the opportunity to be in the gym together and to be able to play,” Abbott said. “We’re going to let other people worry about that stuff. We’ll address it right at the beginning in terms of following the rules and then from there on out we’re just going to be business as usual.”
“We have a saying for that. It’s called ‘Win Anyway,’ no matter the circumstance and that kind of applies now,” Boucher said.
Other coaches in southern Maine echoed that sense of gratitude.
“We are so grateful to have a season even if it is a little different than what we are used to,” said Kevin Millington, the boys’ basketball coach at South Portland. “For our staff, we are so grateful to be able to teach again. We only had 10 practices last year and players were coming and going so we never got to see how a team might develop over the course of a season.”
Ben Raymond, the swim coach at Cape Elizabeth, said he’s excited for the return of in-person swim meets. A year ago, teams that could access a pool swam solo meets, then would submit their times to be compared to another team that swam separately, usually in a different pool and often on different days.
“I think our athletes compete much better when there is an athlete from another team racing against them in the pool at the same time,” Raymond said. “The excitement of in-person swim meets was greatly missed last season and having that again will be fun for everyone.”
Swimmers and divers will not wear masks while competing.
Indoor track will also be back.
“The SMAA is scheduled to have a full season this year,” said George Mendros, the boys’ indoor track coach at Thornton Academy in Saco. “We normally have five regular-season meets, followed by the league championship and the state championships and at this moment we will be able to do that.”
Mendros added, “As of right now all athletes will have to be masked at all times while indoors including meets. For those competing in field events and the hurdles and 55 dash this should not be a problem. The athletes competing in the 200 (meters) on up could have trouble achieving their best times.”
Boucher said it’s not just the players and coaches who are excited for the season to begin. So are the parents who were unable to watch their children play last winter. She said her parents, Amy and Pete Boucher, “are already planning. They’ll be in the stands. Probably the first people in there.”