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It was only an hour-long conditioning session, but Monday morning’s workout for members of several Foxcroft Academy athletic teams was meaningful.

The athletes had the opportunity to interact with their friends and teammates for the first time as a group after nearly four months of isolation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Maine Principals’ Association has put numerous safety protocols in place, but that didn’t bother the athletes in the least.

“It felt great to finally be outside with all of your friends,” said Ainsley Ade, a senior on the Foxcroft Academy girls soccer team. “It was really nice to finally get together and talk about a sport we all love.

“Having these workouts makes us look forward to the future and, hopefully, having a season,” Ade said.

Ava Rayfield, a senior on the Ponies field hockey team, said the training will provide them with extra motivation and a valuable bonding experience similar to what they missed because summer league field hockey was canceled because of the coronavirus.

Orono High School basketball players do planks on a soccer field during the first practice of the season on July 6. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“It was definitely nice to see everybody out there, including all the other athletes as well,” Rayfield said. “It has been so long.”

Forty-five athletes participated in Foxcroft’s first conditioning session which included members of six teams. Ade said the workouts give the returning athletes a good opportunity to get to know the newcomers.

Athletes from Brewer and Orono high schools also began conditioning under the MPA guidelines, but the vast majority of Maine schools, including Bangor High, are waiting until August to begin team activities.

Brewer had 140 sign up for its various fall sports and Orono had 117.

Last month the MPA, following the recommendations of Gov. Janet Mills, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Education, released detailed guidelines for schools to follow as they phase sports back into the curriculum.

Even though high school summer leagues were wiped out, several other activities such as AAU basketball, are operating under stringent guidelines.

Monday was the start of Phase One under the MPA plan, which runs until July 19. It allows schools to hold up to five, one-hour outdoor athlete sessions per week for conditioning, strength training and agility only.

Pods consist of 10 people or fewer and the athletes must remain in the same pod for two weeks. Social distancing is enforced and coaches must take daily attendance for athletes and adults. All undergo a regular health screening.

Coaches must wear face coverings and it is recommended the athletes do so when they aren’t involved in vigorous activity. Hand sanitizer is plentiful.

Athletic administrators said their school districts felt it was important for their student-athletes to have the opportunity to work out together this month.

“These kids are looking for some structure and to get back into a routine and we felt we could put them in a safe environment to do so,” Orono athletic director Mike Archer said. “They haven’t been together since March and we felt it was socially and emotionally beneficial for them to reconnect with their teammates and their coaches.

The sessions should be positive and help build some momentum heading into the new school year and, hopefully, a fall sports season, Archer said.

Athletes will work out two hours a week for the next two weeks at Brewer and Orono. Foxcroft Academy is going four hours per week.

Holding the workouts also helps schools test their protocols to help prevent exposure to COVID-19.

Orono High School basketball players do running exercises on a soccer field during the first practice of the season on July 6. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“The kids have been lacking in personal structure for quite some time now and we felt we were able to offer this to them safely,” Brewer AD Dave Utterback said. “It is great for them to get these connections back.”

Foxcroft AD Tim Smith told his athletes that the sessions are not necessarily geared specifically toward the potential physical benefits of the workout routines.

“It has more to do with regimentation, having something to do and the social aspect of reconnecting with their coaches, whom they idolize, as well as their peers,” Smith said.

“This will be a big boost to their mental health,” he added.

Smith is a member of the MPA’s sports medicine committee, which was involved in developing the rules and guidelines.

“We have a good understanding of the risks and precautions,” Smith said, stressing the importance of having a full-time certified athletic trainer like FA’s Jaclyn Tourtelotte to help implement the safety rules.

Bangor, Hampden Academy and Old Town are among the eastern Maine schools that cited safety concerns in opting to hold off on organized sports activities until next month.

“The ultimate goal is to be able to start full, on time, in the fall,” HA athletic director Fred Lower said.

“And the vast majority of our athletes have been active this summer on travel teams and AAU teams,” Old Town AD Jeremy Bousquet said in pointing out that some athletes have been competing elsewhere this summer.

School superintendents in Cumberland and York counties, two of the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus, mandated that their schools not have any in-person sports gatherings until Aug. 3. Among those are schools in the Southwestern Maine Activities Association and the Western Maine Conference, which are allowing virtual sessions led by coaches.

Phase Two of the MPA plan runs from July 20 to Aug. 2 and the outdoor pods will expand from 10 to 50 athletes. Students must remain in designated areas and stay in the same pod for the two weeks.

Athletes and coaches also will have access to indoor facilities such as gyms, weight rooms and wrestling areas. Indoor pods must include 10 people or fewer.

Phase Two also expands to add individual skill development, sport-specific activities and use of athletic equipment. Schools may conduct two-hour sessions, five days a week.

The MPA has eliminated the two-week, hands-off period in August when coaches can’t interact with athletes. Instead, the period spanning Aug. 3-16 will become Phase Three, for which guidelines have not been announced.

Extra time will be valuable in getting the players physically ready for the season, Lower said.