Wire ties, plywood and caution tape render a playground basketball hoop inoperable in Portland in April 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Not even the most iconic of Maine’s winter experiences — high school basketball — can escape the scourge of COVID-19.

The impact of state guidelines for school-based and community athletics, created to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, has challenged relations between school sports leaders and independent basketball clubs.

Those guidelines initially were offered as recommendations, but as the COVID-19 cases have continued to surge, state agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services have begun to take a tougher enforcement stance as they have aligned the guidelines for school and community sports.

Maine Hoops, the state’s largest community-based basketball program, last Thursday received a letter from DHHS commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. She said its plans to stage events beginning the weekend of Dec. 18 were not allowed.

That came after the guideline for the start of Level 4 in-person competition between teams from the same geographic area, in moderate-risk sports such as basketball, had been pushed back to at least Jan. 11, 2021.

“We ask that you change your schedule as soon as possible,” Lambrew wrote.

Maine Hoops owner Lenny Holmes believes his program meets the state’s guidelines. He says the games proposed really are scrimmages because the participants are all members of the same organization.

Intrasquad scrimmages under Level 3 of Maine’s community sports guidelines were going to be allowed beginning Dec. 14 until last Friday, when the start date was delayed to Jan. 4, 2021.

“I think the biggest mistake is I used the word games instead of scrimmages, but I don’t know what the difference is — there’s no fans, everything is limited,” said Holmes, who is awaiting a response to a follow-up letter he wrote to the DHHS. “But either way I submitted that as my plan going forward in September.”

He pointed out that Maine Hoops sponsored play all fall with no pushback from the state, so its plan was to revert to Level 3 guidelines and start again with small cohorts playing scrimmages.

Players who register with Maine Hoops are divided into cohorts of no more than 40 players. They often are grouped with members of another team they play on, such as school teammates.

“There’s no cross-contamination,” Holmes said.

Holmes said his situation came to Lambrew’s attention through a letter written by Peter Murray, president of the Maine Association of Basketball Coaches (MABC). The organization includes high school and middle school coaches.

“To me this is the worst possible situation under COVID concerns,” Murray wrote, referencing a three-week cohort for high school players originally planned for Dec. 18-20.

Murray, the boys varsity basketball coach at Dexter Regional High School, acknowledged that neither the MABC nor the Maine Principals’ Association, which sanctions interscholastic sports, are connected with the organizers of that planned event. Their athletes are affected.

“High school players will be practicing with their team all week, then competing on weekends with a variety of opponents, then returning directly back to their high school gyms and teammates,” Murray wrote.

He said many MABC members were frustrated last summer when they weren’t allowed to conduct offseason basketball programs at their schools — even as the clubs held summer activities.

“Most high school coaches I talked to were kind of shrugging their shoulders like, ‘I’m not sure how this could happen,’ that they’re able to do that while we’re not able to go into the high school gyms,” Murray said during a subsequent interview. “It kind of caught everybody off guard, and then when we got into the fall we started asking questions about it and found out that in reality they shouldn’t have been doing all of that.”

He suggested the youth basketball groups had been performing “self-enforcement” in terms of interpreting the state guidelines.

Enforcement of the community sports guidelines began to change in early October. The Maine Amateur Hockey Association came under scrutiny after a referee who worked eight games in southern Maine and New Hampshire one weekend tested positive for COVID-19, potentially exposing as many as 400 players, coaches and fellow officials.

The hockey league stopped playing games until the community sports guidelines were revised on Nov. 6.

“This revised checklist also aligns the timing of practice and competition for moderate-risk [community] sports to be the same as that for school-based winter sports like ice hockey and basketball,” Lambrew said at the time.

Fritz Marseille also operated summer and fall basketball programs with his Black Bear North club based in eastern and central Maine. He planned to start a winter program on Dec. 18 based on the former Dec. 14 start date for scrimmaging.

“I thought Lenny was really on point when he stated the rules and how they were written, because when I read the guidelines they were written very similar to what transpired during the fall and we did everything then to follow the guidelines,” Marseille said. “The only thing they did add was that players had to wear masks so, OK, if those are the guidelines then that’s what we’ll have to follow.”

Murray, who once coached AAU basketball and has many of his players participate in club programs, acknowledged some strain between the school-based and community-based youth basketball worlds.

“We should be working in partnership with each other but that’s not necessarily the way it is in Maine,” he said. “It’s a very adversarial relationship right now, but at the end of the day we’re all trying to give kids opportunities to develop as people.”

Marseille, a former University of Maine basketball player and one-time athletic administrator at Hermon High School, sees the relationship between school-based basketball and clubs as complementary rather than competitive.

“School sports are school sports, and we can’t compete against that,” Marseille said. “When you put that trophy out there, that gold ball, you give towns and schools and kids something to rally around. People love that.

“I have a lot of top players that play for [Black Bear North], and when their school teams are playing I push them to play with their school teams. If they can do both, do both, but I want them to play for their school team.”

Despite their differences, those entities are now being held to the same standards in terms of the application of the state’s community sports guidance.

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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...