As the fall season draws to a close, high school sports return to pre-pandemic norms

From the first workouts in August, Dean Plante could tell that things were looking brighter. Unlike the previous two falls, he wasn’t consumed with viewing high school sports through a pandemic prism. Not even student-athletes.

“I felt it from day one. Guys, it was like a big breath, just a sigh of relief,” said Plante, athletic director and football coach at Old Orchard Beach High. The athletes weren’t plagued by uncertainty from “those looming thoughts of ‘We’ll make it to participate in all matches? Will the other team be able to play?’”

For the first time in three years, high school teams competing in fall sports were able to get through the season without restrictions due to the pandemic or significant disruptions due to COVID. The season will conclude on Saturday with four games of the state championship in football.

“I’ve only really known high school full of restrictions and mask mandates, and it’s been really fun (this fall),” said Elise MacNair, senior captain of the Old Orchard women’s soccer team. “Everyone had fun. We could play more freely. It wasn’t about worrying about constantly testing for COVID.

Two years ago, the indoor soccer and volleyball seasons were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, while the playoffs and postseason championships were canceled for all sports except golf. Field hockey and soccer teams faced shortened seasons against teams from their own county, if they were capable of playing. Sports have been shut down completely in counties labeled “yellow” or “red” under the state’s color-coding system for virus transmission risk.

Even last fall, when state championships were held across the state, dozens of games were canceled during the season due to the COVID outbreaks. Then came the Delta variant of the coronavirus and the skyrocketing case load in schools. The new buzzwords have become vaccination rates, close contacts and pool tests. Players and fans were required to wear face masks for volleyball games inside the gymnasiums.

This fall, pandemic restrictions were lifted in schools, giving access to vaccines and other tools to contain the spread of the virus. Players and coaches are thankful for the return to normalcy.

Jack Brochu is a senior football player at Thornton Academy, one of the teams playing for a state title on Saturday. His mother, Erica, is a nurse at Northern Light Health who worked with COVID patients in 2020. Brochu sat out that fall – football teams were allowed to play 7-on-7 flag football in 2020 – at the urging of his mother, but played him as a junior and senior. This year was the first, he said, without any reservations.

“He was still very uncomfortable (last year), but felt better knowing I had gotten both shots, the booster and all I could do. She was much more willing to let me play football this year,” she said. “It seemed much more normal than last year.… This year I felt much more comfortable than in years past.

Brochu was thrilled that the Homecoming pep rally was back after a three-year hiatus.

“It was an amazing feeling, to be there with the whole senior class and having fun,” she said.

Skowhegan field hockey coach Paula Doughty said that while her players had a full season last year, they were more comfortable this fall.

“It took a while just to relearn how to be social,” she said. “Last year they told me, every other day, ‘Are we safe?’ I’d look around and be like, ‘I guess so, I hope so. It seems safe to me.’ No one has asked me this year if I’m safe. Is very cute.”

On the volleyball court, players were finally able to take off their masks for the first time since the arrival of COVID. Gardiner’s coach Tiffany Ouellette said her players remained optimistic about wearing masks last year but were relieved to be playing without them this season.

“Playing in a mask restricts your breathing and I think it affects your game a bit,” he said. “It’s hard to add anything to your face when you’re already trying to run and play a sport. We were definitely glad we didn’t have them.

With no restrictions on participation or requirements to wear masks, athletes were excited to return to the gym, said Jim Senecal, who retired as Yarmouth High’s volleyball coach shortly after the Clippers won their fourth straight Class B championship in October.

“They would come to practice a half hour early and loved being together and it was fun to see him again because that’s what makes our sport fun and great,” Senecal said. “It was just a different vibe.”

This fall, coaches and administrators didn’t have a constant sense of dread, wondering which students would test positive for COVID each day.

“The concern is always there, but fortunately we’ve had very few cases (this fall), where last year you might have 20 cases that you had to deal with at once, and then when would they be able to play,” said Sarah Holmes, the Yarmouth sports director.

Even the players feared him. Anytime this past fall, their season could come to a temporary or permanent halt.

“We had almost five positive cases (last year). It was a little scary, knowing we might have shut down because some of our school’s teams shut down, and we were literally a case away,” said Khianna Jackson, a senior this fall on the Biddeford field hockey team “It was very nerve-wracking.”

But this school year has offered a respite from anxiety. “It felt like we could almost start over this fall,” said Holmes.

MacNair, the Old Orchard soccer player, said she saw a difference in team chemistry and overall conditioning. With increased confidence that the 2022 season would be complete and competitive, she said more players entered the preseason in better shape due to increased attendance in summer schedules.

“Honestly the best part was the team atmosphere,” said MacNair. “This was the first year that I went away as if our team were friends on and off the field because we were allowed to do some things to bond the team outside of practice.”

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