In this October 2019 photo, Dor Saar of the University of Maine (15) is pictured during a game in Bangor. UMaine continues to wait for guidance from America East and Hockey East in preparing for a potential winter sports season. Credit: Peter Buehner

University of Maine athletics director Ken Ralph believes there is a legitimate chance that winter sports teams will be able to play some games in this calendar year.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Ralph said. “We are looking at much more of an emphasis on conference games. That doesn’t mean we won’t play non-conference games, but conference games will be accommodated first.”

He acknowledged there is still plenty of uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

America East and Colonial Athletic Association football have announced that they are working on plans that might allow fall sports to be played during the spring semester.

In the meantime, efforts have been focused on working toward implementation of a plan that would allow winter sports athletes to begin competition early in 2021.

Ralph said the NCAA has proposed four potential starting dates for the basketball seasons.

Those include the original date of Sept. 29 for the first practice and Nov. 10 for the first game. Other options could include an Oct. 9 first practice and a Nov. 20 first game date, and plans for Oct. 14 and Nov. 25 or Oct. 24 and Dec. 4, respectively.

Ice hockey starting dates remain up in the air.

One dynamic that could enhance the ability of UMaine and other conference rivals is the structure of school calendars from Thanksgiving through much of January.

College campuses are likely to be largely free of students, faculty and staff at that time, which will reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

“Most of the schools in our leagues aren’t going to have students on campus in December and January so we can use that to our advantage,” Ralph said.

Residence halls at UMaine will close on Nov. 25 for the Thanksgiving break and students will finish their first-semester classes and take their final exams online. Residence halls won’t reopen until Jan. 17, 2021.

Ralph said America East and Hockey East have formed return-to-play committees that are considering a number of scheduling scenarios. However, they are all waiting to see how the national sports committees act before making any final determinations.

“Until we know the starting dates, it’s difficult to put together a schedule,” Ralph said. “We are starting to get closer to some clarity and that will define what we will be able to do.”

Ralph said one dynamic that should significantly enhance the chances of UMaine’s leagues playing a winter sports season is the development of an inexpensive and accurate test for the coronavirus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month approved a test based on a person’s saliva that costs only $5 and provides results in 15 minutes. Abbott Laboratories in Westbrook recently hired 1,200 people to help make the tests.

Ralph said if the test is proven accurate to go along with its cost efficiency and speedy results, he will be much more confident that there will be a winter sports season for UMaine teams.

“There will be quite a demand for the tests. I hope there’s enough for us,” Ralph said. “There are still so many variables but things are trending in the right direction.”

Hockey East announced in July that it plans to have a season for both men and women.

Ralph said the commissioners of the various leagues continue to debate the issues pertaining to coronavirus protocols such as scheduling and whether or not to allow fans to attend the games. Of course, each state has implemented its own mandates that universities would have to follow in trying to stage athletic events.

Another topic of discussion among administrators is a “bubble” scenario like the ones being used successfully by the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.

All of the NBA regular season and playoff games held after the restart have been held in Orlando, Florida, while the NHL sent its teams to Edmonton and Toronto in Ontario to play all of their Stanley Cup playoff games.

“You could play three or four games in a five or six-day period [at one site]. You could isolate everyone and control the environment. But it would take a significant amount of testing to pull it off,” Ralph said.

That also would limit travel, which has been a popular theme for controlling the coronavirus.

“Some leagues are emphasizing geographic-appropriate matchups,” Ralph said.

That means teams could wind up playing more games against nearby conference rivals than against league teams that are located much farther away.

“Scheduling in a good year is a challenge, especially for us being a geographic outlier,” Ralph said. “[The pandemic] has thrown us a curveball. Everything is changing day by day.”