High school coaches express frustration, sadness to state’s response to fall sports guidelines
Cony High School football coach B.L. Lippert thought he was through with the difficult conversations he and his players have been having.
“I thought last year, addressing them after we lost going for two in overtime in a playoff game would be the hardest conversation I was going to have with them,” he said Tuesday. “That’s going to be topped by the one that’s going to take place.”
Playoff losses hurt, but they don’t hurt as much as lost seasons. Football and volleyball are staring at that potential fate after state officials countered the Maine Principals’ Association’s guidelines for a fall sports season. The state included in its letter to the MPA some revised community sports guidelines, which recommended that football be limited to intrasquad scrimmages and that volleyball not hold any indoor competitions.
Other sports would also be affected — under the updated community sports guidelines, soccer and field hockey would be limited to regional competition — but none were hurt more than volleyball and football, the latter of which has seen its viability discussed for much of the summer as the fall sport that has the highest risk.
“The roller coaster that our kids were put through was maybe something that could have been avoided,” Lippert said. “You sympathize for those seniors. I remember my senior year, we were 3-5 and weren’t very good, but I remember every game and every win, and the Cony-Gardiner game. And they don’t get that. And that’s really difficult.”
Lippert called the decision a “massive blow.”
“There’s no way to replace that,” he said. “It can’t be touch football, it can’t be tag football, online. There’s nothing that replicates Friday night.”
Lippert wasn’t alone. Coaches across the state spent Tuesday afternoon dealing with disappointment and searching for answers.
“Obviously, (the reaction) is disappointment,” Mt. Blue coach Scott Franzose said. “Talking to several coaches, my staff, seeing the excitement and the kids being able to get back out this summer as we’ve gone through the phases … it’s hard not to feel like — and not to get all political — this is a little bit of a staring contest. A lot of us are feeling that, if you’re going to make the decision, make the decision one way or the other. This has been four months hanging over our head.”
“You feel kind of helpless sometimes,” Portland coach Jason McLeod added. “We’re looking for answers and if this is part of the process to allow us to play competitively then I’m willing to remain patient, but from a players’ perspective, they’ve been told they can’t do this since March.”
Leavitt coach Mike Hathaway said the constant swings in outlook and unrelenting uncertainty have been hard for his players.
“I’m 45, about to be 46. Imagine if you were 16 or 17, how that would be,” he said. “I know it’s been difficult on those athletes. They’ve done a good job, though. They’ve worked hard in our workouts, despite not knowing.”
Kennebunk football coach Joe Rafferty said that Tuesday morning he had e-mailed his players, urging them to expect to get started Sept. 8. Kennebunk’s school board had voted Monday night to support the MPA’s decision to move forward with fall sports.
“We’re used to having things change on the fly and we’re used to having setbacks, and this is just potentially one more we have to overcome, but at some point we just have to say, ‘This is how we’re going to do it,’ ” Rafferty said. “To continue to kind of give kids hope and dangle that carrot in front of them, and if in the end the carrot is going to be hidden and pulled away, I don’t think that’s fair.”
Bonny Eagle football coach Kevin Cooper said he was disappointed that neither Tuesday’s letter to the MPA nor the revised community sports guidelines explained how or what football has to do to be able to play games.
“To me, it would be so much more helpful if you added that to the information coming out,” Cooper said. “If you could tell kids, if we can make it until Sept. 15 without any outbreaks, then we can move football to be able to go to Level 4 and play games in your geographic area, that would change the whole outlook of our conversation.”
Most of all, Cooper is upset no firm decisions have been made.
“There’s no reason we should be here on Sept. 1 and still not really have a ton of clarity of what’s happening,” Cooper said. “I’m watching six different high school football games (last Saturday) from all around the country and we still don’t know exactly what we’re allowed to do. (I) think (that’s) incredibly unfair to the athletes from the state and my heart goes out to them.”
Jake Rogers, who coaches football at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport, said he was surprised the state made its call.
“To me, everyone kind of just wants someone to make the choice,” he said. “I’m actually surprised they did it and didn’t leave it up to the schools, because I kind of figured they were going to do that, make the schools make the hard choice.”
Some coaches, however, looked for silver linings. Gardiner coach Pat Munzing said he updated his team at practice, and saw a group determined to push forward.
“What I saw from our kids was resiliency,” he said. “They don’t see it as a done deal. They’re looking to see what avenues can be taken … and to see the final outcome. They’re not ready to quit on this season.”
While the news left the football community reeling, volleyball coaches and players struggled with the development as well.
“I would say I’m not surprised, really, because we are the only indoor (fall) sport,” Cony coach Lindsey Morin said. “All summer we have been tracking what’s being done and what’s being said. That was always the underlying thing, ‘You guys are practicing outdoors.’ Whatever sport — guys, girls, field hockey, doesn’t matter — all of them are outdoors. So, if there was one to be cancelled, it doesn’t surprise me (if volleyball was cancelled).”
Coaches Jim Senecal of Yarmouth and Larry Nichols of Falmouth both think playing games outside would be difficult, at best.
“One of things we did on the volleyball committee was we looked at worst-case scenario,” Senecal said. “We talked about the possibility of identifying a gap in the calendar between basketball and spring sports and postponing the season to that gap, the middle of February break through April or early May. Those are a couple of months where nothing is happening and gyms are open, and hopefully we’re in a better place with the virus and maybe we can do something with that.”
Nichols said it would be a “win-win” to be able to practice and scrimmage with his team in the fall, knowing that the real season would be in 2021.
“I would love to work with my kids this fall and that would be a win-win,” Nichols said. “You’d have a lot of kids involved with the understanding that come February or April we’d have a season. I’m trying to look at it as a glass half full, even if it is a glass of sour milk.”
Staff writers Steve Craig of the Portland Press Herald and Dave Dyer contributed to this report.