Camden Hills head football coach Chris Christie (second from left) talks with his assistant coaches, from left, line coach Dan Davis, defensive coordinator Tim Doran and offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Joe Russillo. Credit: Courtesy of Sally Russillo

It was back to the telephone for Jeff Hart on Tuesday morning.

For the second straight week, the Camden Hills Regional High School athletic administrator was attempting to find a new opponent for the Windjammers’ football team.

First, Ellsworth-Sumner had to bow out of last Friday’s game against Camden Hills because of COVID-19 cases. Then came word Monday that RSU 29 in the Houlton area had gone to remote learning and the Houlton-Hodgdon football team would not be traveling to Rockport for Saturday’s scheduled meeting of undefeated 8-player teams.

“The football team was starting to watch film from the last game and also had some film from Houlton,” Hart said. “But then I had to call [football coach] Chris [Christie] last night and say, ‘You might want to put that Houlton film on hold.’”

Ongoing COVID-19 cases — as well as a lack of bus drivers, a lack of game officials and occasional wet weather — have left athletic administrators around the state constantly juggling high school sports schedules.

While competitions in soccer, field hockey, cross country and golf can be rescheduled relatively easily so long as COVID-19 doesn’t completely shut down a team, the physical nature of football requires a longer recovery period and generally limits games in that sport to one per week.

With few if any open weeks to be found on most football schedules, the challenge for athletic administrators like Hart when games are canceled is to find another team to play on the same weekend in order to fill out the regular-season schedule.

When Hart got the call last Thursday that Ellsworth-Sumner would be unavailable to play Friday, the indirect effect of COVID-19 was felt immediately within the Camden Hills locker room.

“It made it real again, and that reality is that the season could come to an end at any time,” Christie said. “It was a hard dose of reality, but I can’t give enough credit to Jeff for just grinding and grinding and grinding until he finally found us a game.”

It wasn’t easy. Hart scoured the schedules of 8-player football teams around the state and sent out a mass email to athletic directors seeking a playing partner on short notice.

One potential opponent that had a scheduled bye last weekend declined because some of its players already had made plans for their off weekend. Another possible foe declined because of a perceived lack of preparation time for the quick turnaround.

Hart finally got a call from Morse High School of Bath athletic administrator Nate Priest on Friday afternoon offering his Shipbuilders as an opponent the next evening.

Game on.

“It was a roller coaster for 48 hours, going from being excited to go and play Ellsworth to all of a sudden not having that opportunity,” Christie said. “When Morse said it was interested in playing us Jeff said, ‘Do you want it?’ I said, ‘Listen, our season could end tomorrow so I want the kids to play football. I don’t want to look into another group of seniors’ faces and tell them they don’t get to play so yes, we’ll take that game.’”

Morse, which during the pre-season was considered one of the better teams in 8-player football’s large-school division for schools with student enrollments of 355 or more, took a 24-19 halftime lead on its home field in Bath before Camden Hills rallied behind senior running back Hunter Norton for a 60-42 victory to improve its record to 2-0.

Norton rushed for 280 yards and six touchdowns on 14 carries, and the Windjammers outscored the Shipbuilders 41-18 during the second half.

The first of what now are anticipated to be two Camden Hills-Morse football battles this season — their originally scheduled meeting in Rockport is set for Oct. 8 as part of the Windjammers’ homecoming weekend — wasn’t the first Maine high school football game reconfigured this year.

That came in Week 1, when Stearns-Schenck of the Millinocket area and Mount Desert Island met in an 8-player small-school season opener in Bar Harbor. Stearns-Schenck’s original opponent, Mount View of Thorndike, had to cancel due to COVID-19 cases and MDI’s game with Washington Academy of East Machias was canceled after WA opted out of the 2021 season due to a lack of players.

But as the COVID-19 delta variant continues to spread through the school-age population, Hart sees more revised football matchups as inevitable in an effort to preserve the season.

“I never coached football but I know how much the coaches depend on watching film,” said  Hart, the former boys basketball coach at Camden Hills who guided the Windjammers to 503 victories and six state championships before becoming the school’s athletic administrator in 2019.

“I just think we need to get into a mindset that these are not normal times and we’ve got to do whatever we can to play every chance we get because every game could be our last one.”

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...