In this October 2019 file photo, Harley Pelletier (right) of Madawaska tries to get around Hodgdon's Emma Drew during a Class D North soccer prelim game in Houlton. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

With some Aroostook County high schools already in session and others nearing opening day in this age of COVID-19, there may be no athletic administrator in the region busier than Lynn Wetmore.

Wetmore not only organizes the Madawaska High School athletic program, she’s also the school nurse — a combination that has made for busy times as she prepares for the first full day of classes on Aug. 31.

“It is a little bit frustrating, but these days I think we just have to go with it and do what we can and make it work,” she said. “We do the best we can.”

Wetmore’s primary job at the moment involves protecting the health of incoming students and staff in conjunction with coronavirus guidelines.

“I just want to be able to see kids start school, and for right now that would be my first priority, and then let’s go with whatever else we can fit in with that,” she said.

Wetmore is working with fellow Aroostook League athletic administrators to prepare for a sports season that remains in jeopardy. The Maine Principals’ Association is expected to announce Aug. 27 what kind of varsity competition, if any, will take place in Maine this fall.

Madawaska offers soccer and cross country and recently received approval to field a golf team.

“It’s been a little crazy with the schedules because some schools have harvest [break] for two weeks, some have harvest break for three weeks,” Wetmore said. “Some can play during break, some can’t.”

She also cited new busing guidelines that will force schools to send the boys team on one bus and the girls on another.

County teams traditionally have started preseason practices in July and begun the regular season in mid-August to compensate for the annual potato harvest break in late September and early October.

This year Aroostook League schools first pushed the start of practices back to Aug. 17, and then Sept. 1, to allow school officials to establish their return-to-school plans.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” said Tim Doak, superintendent of schools for Caribou and Fort Fairfield. “Schools were never designed for what we’re doing in a COVID world.”

Many County schools also have offered MPA-sanctioned voluntary conditioning programs for athletes this summer. They are in place to help compensate for conditioning lost when the spring sports season was cancelled and to re-engage athletes with their teammates and coaches.

“Our participation has been through the roof, much more than I expected,” Presque Isle athletic administrator Mark White said. “I think kids are ready to get out and do something, and the coaches are ready to do something.”

The final phase of the MPA conditioning program begins Monday for schools scheduled to begin tryouts on Sept. 1 and lasts two weeks for Penobscot Valley Conference schools like Class B Presque Isle and Caribou that will start tryouts on Sept. 8, the same date as other downstate schools.

The first day for countable fall matches is Sept. 18 for PVC schools, while Aroostook League schools may begin the regular season no sooner than Sept. 11.

The late start means athletic administrators had to devise a condensed soccer schedule, since the final day for countable games is Oct. 22.

For some Aroostook County schools, that may mean breaking from tradition and playing games during the harvest break.

“It puts a different wrinkle into it because if sports go ahead we can’t get our schedule in otherwise,” Wetmore said of Madawaska, which observes a two-week harvest break.

Soccer schedules statewide have been reduced from 14 to 10 games, with an emphasis on regionalization to reduce travel and address physical distancing guidelines. The protocols reduce the number of passengers on a typical school bus by more than half, to the mid-20s on average.

Aroostook League schools, which typically play boys and girls varsity soccer doubleheaders, will now often have more bus runs on game night since the teams won’t ride together.

If Fort Fairfield has a doubleheader at Central Aroostook with games at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., a bus will take the team that’s playing first to Mars Hill, then return to Fort Fairfield and be wiped down before taking the other team to the same game site, Fort Fairfield athletic administrator Tim Watt said.

Two separate bus runs would then be required to take the teams home after their games.

“Every team will travel alone on a bus for the first time that I ever heard of,” Easton athletic administrator Bryan Shaw said. “Of course, this can make for many scheduling challenges, especially for small schools with few buses.”

Presque Isle and Caribou will play two soccer matches against each other as well as two games each against Class C Fort Kent and Houlton. Their other four matches will be against other PVC foes, two at home and two on the road.

“Presque Isle’s been very well taken care of by the PVC,” White said.

While Maine athletic administrators wait to see if all their preparatory work will be needed, some already are considering other options.

“What we’re going to try to do in Fort Fairfield and Caribou is offer some type of different activity that’s safe if we don’t have sports,” Doak said.

“We’ve been looking at everything from mountain biking to fly fishing,” Doak said. “A lot of kids don’t know how to use a fly rod, so could we do that in our PE classes and as an after-school activity to give kids something to do that’s safe and spread out.”

It also is exploring e-sports.

“We are officially in the ‘hurry up and wait’ stage of prepping for soccer this fall,” Shaw said. “I think it is safe to say that all parents, student-athletes and athletic administrators have their fingers crossed.”

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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...