Although the season was shortened, Old Town Little League baseball has played this summer at the K of C Field in Old Town by following specific protocols. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

B.L. Lippert is playing the waiting game this week like so many other high school coaches, players, parents and fans around Maine.

All want to know if there will be a fall sports season amid the COVID-19 pandemic after spring interscholastic schedules were canceled.

While many summer sports offerings were called off or limited by the threat of the coronavirus and state-imposed mass-gathering limits, the annual Maine Elite Passing football camp was held in late July.

Coaches Lippert, of Cony High School in Augusta, Mike Hathaway of Leavitt High School in Turner Center and Kevin Cooper of Bonny Eagle High School in Standish conducted sessions during separate weeks in Augusta and Portland.

The surviving programs admittedly had a different feel. COVID-19 waivers and health checks were the norm while handshakes and high-fives were discouraged.

Yet the traditional summer programs that were held reported no coronavirus outbreaks amid a healthy turnout of participants eager to pursue their athletic passions after several months on the sidelines.

“This year after every single session kids would come up and say thanks,” Lippert said. “They were really appreciative of the chance to play and I think that was a function of their desire to get outside and do something because they’d been inside since March 13.”

Passing fancy

The Maine Elite Passing Academy held all activities outside rather than have lunch and video sessions indoors as they had in past years. Players also underwent a health screening process, wore face coverings to the field and practiced social distancing when not playing.

“When it came time to play football they played football, but during any other time they were trying their best to social distance,” Lippert said.

Wide receivers also were encouraged to wear gloves to catch footballs that were steam-cleaned each day between each of the three two-hour sessions.

The camp enjoyed a record-setting turnout despite the fact linemen were not included this year. There were 85 players for the Augusta week and 122 for the Portland week.

The coaches initially were hesitant to run their camp, in part because of state limits on gatherings that started at 10 people but later grew to 50. The camp was postponed indefinitely at the end of June.

But within a couple of weeks, the feedback was clear.

“In those weeks that we waited, more and more people kept signing up, and that really sent a message to us that the kids and their parents were looking for something.”

A regional approach

Maine Hoops AAU basketball director Lenny Holmes reported receiving more than 1,300 waivers signed by players for his program in Saco, which involved a pair of three-week sessions separated by a week.

“Our numbers were up about 25 percent for the final three weeks after we got through the first session because I think people saw we were doing things the right way,” he said. “Then it comes down to that personal decision of the parents and their kids wanting to have that opportunity to play.”

Holmes limited entries to teams from Maine, and later New Hampshire and Vermont, after Gov. Janet Mills determined that residents of those states could visit Maine without having to self-quarantine for two weeks upon their arrival.

“Controlling who we allowed to play in the event was a big piece,” Holmes said. “You couldn’t just bring a team in from anywhere.”

The Maine Hoops website also had a two-page listing of mandatory guidelines and recommended best practices for anyone with a role in the games.

“In sports by nature there’s going to be contact,” Holmes said. “There’s going to be heavy breathing, there’s going to be exchanges, all of those things. My real goal was to minimize it the best that we could and then recognize that it became a parental choice.”

Anyone entering the Saco site had to wear a face covering. While athletes didn’t have to wear masks while playing, Holmes instituted a technical foul rule for coaches caught not wearing a face covering during games. Each coach got one warning but earned a technical for the second violation.

“You make sure you’re doing all those things so that we weren’t contributing to any spreading, and you do as much as you can to really minimize the contact to just what happens on the floor,” Holmes said.

Each team was limited to 24 people in the facility including players, coaches and parents. Nobody could enter the facility for the next game until everyone involved in the previous game had left.

Game officials minimized their number of touches of the basketball during the game, and the basketball and benches were sanitized after each game.

Holmes reported no COVID-19 incidents in more than 600 AAU games at Maine Hoops’ locales.

“We had two [health-related] incidents right at the beginning, and it was pretty clear it was just kids who were out of shape because they hadn’t done anything for three months and now they were running up and down the court,” he said.

“But we followed the protocols, shut down the games — those teams couldn’t continue — and cleaned up the area, dried it out, informed everybody what had happened and then moved on.”

The boys of summer

The cancellation of the American Legion season and sanctioned Little League tournaments put a crimp in Maine’s youth baseball offerings this summer.

But local Little Leagues were allowed to play their own schedules.

The Old Town Little League did so starting in mid-July and will play its championship game on Thursday evening.

“From my view it seems to have worked out very well compared to what we normally do and compared to what the virus has done to everything,” said Mike Ellis, a coach and player agent in the league. “We did lose maybe a half-dozen kids from last year. Last year we had six teams, this year we had five.”

Ellis said one of his coaching colleagues also opted not to return to the diamond.

“He didn’t want to take the risk,” Ellis said.

The league does not use dugouts where the team might otherwise congregate. Players remain outside the fence, socially distanced between home plate and the dugouts, along each base line.

Spectators watch from outside the outfield fence in various 6-foot sections that have been measured off.

“We fever-scan the kids, coaches and umpires, anybody who’s going on the field,” Ellis said.

The league also developed a COVID-19 waiver form for players and parents to sign.

The Maine Independent Baseball League filled the American Legion baseball void, with 28 teams from around the state competing in two divisions.

“I had my speculations at first when we were holding tryouts, but as the summer went on normal is not quite the word I’d use but it became more normal,” Motor City 19-and-under coach Cam Archer said.

The dugouts at Motor City games were used only by coaches, that day’s pitcher and catcher, and the “in-the-hole” batter due up behind the current hitter and the on-deck player.

“Instead of everybody in a dugout we spray-painted 12 to 14 white spots on the ground outside the dugout where the area was roped off. Each white spot was 6 feet apart so the kids could bring lawn chairs,” Archer said.

Umpires did not touch the baseballs being used and the game balls instead were controlled by the coach of the team in the field. Each player used his own bat, and Quirk Motor City provided players with individual batting helmets, Archer said.

“At this point the kids and the parents were just so happy that we could even offer something like this, even though it had its own modifications and limitations,” he said.

“A lot of the kids I had on the 19U team thought they were never going to play baseball again after the seniors in high school had lost their seasons.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...