Optimism – and worry – growing for high school basketball tournaments

Elsa Daulerio has had a strong senior season for the girls basketball team of Mount Ararat, a Class A South contender.

Whether her team will have a chance to prove itself in a state tournament next month, Daulerio admitted she is getting nervous.

“Oh yes. I’m very worried,” she said. “I know that a lot of schools have been kind of closed lately. It is (happens) everywhere. So you don’t know what’s going to happen every day.”

The accelerated spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant in Maine forced an increasing number of schools to cancel games or pause extracurricular activities. The near-daily disruptions to the high school basketball schedule across the state have left players and coaches wondering what the post-season tournaments might look like in February — and whether they’re in danger of not going on at all. State tournament play-in games are scheduled to begin on February 12.

Maine Principals’ Association director Mike Burnham said this week’s basketball state tournaments are still going ahead as scheduled after being canceled in 2020-21.

“It’s one of those things that I think about a lot, but don’t talk about much. I think if you put it out there and really put it into words, you’re a little bit afraid it could happen,” said Lawrence girls coach Greg Chesley. “Obviously we are quite concerned about it. … Over the past few weeks, it seems to be hitting really hard in the central area of ​​Maine, with so many teams and so many schools taking a week-long break or a 10-day break or going remote.”

“I do worry about it. I hope it doesn’t happen to us,” added Kyle LePage, a junior striker on the Skowhegan boys’ team. “It really worries me because I wouldn’t love to see teams get caught with COVID and have to deal with not having a full team and going against a team and being blown out. … I try not to think about it. If it happens, it happens.”

Hall-Dale’s Jackson Leach (23) ends up on top of Erskine Academy defender Liam Perfetto during a game earlier this season at the Augusta Civic Center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Others are less concerned.

“I’m not worried,” said Skowhegan boys’ basketball coach Tom Nadeau. “In the end I think we will play. I think there are a lot of cases, but it’s ommicron and the disease and the disease part of it is not that serious. … Everyone is dealing with it, and I think it will be okay in the end comes with us.”

Burnham, the MPA director, said on Thursday that the priority remains to hold championships for all winter sports.

“I think we are moving forward, cautiously optimistic,” he said. “The general philosophy is that all our winter activities have a late season.”

Those plans include making the tournament look pretty normal from the fans’ perspective as well. The Augusta Civic Center, Cross Insurance Center in Bangor or Banks Exposition Center in Portland, all of which host regional tournament games, plan to run at full capacity. Masks are mandatory for spectators in Augusta and Bangor, while those at the Expo over the age of 5 are required to mask inside and show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.

Officials at all three locations said masking protocols for players on the floor will be up to the MPA. Burnham said the MPA will follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal and state CDC this week recommended universal indoor masking for all school activities, regardless of vaccination status.

“As long as our health experts’ recommendation is that they should be masked, we will follow them,” Burnham said. “It’s not just basketball. That’s ice hockey, that would be an indoor track… (swimmers) are masked to the point that they go into the pool.”

Rangeley’s Emma Grant (30) drives the baseline as Forest Hills’ Allie Dunning (5) and Emma Lacasse (25) defend during a girls’ basketball game at the Augusta Civic Center on Dec. 29. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

With venues planning to admit spectators, schools that have a limited number or even no visiting fans at their home games may find themselves playing in front of large crowds. Winslow athletic director Jim Bourgoin, whose school has only allowed home fans to its basketball games this season, called it a “minor concern,” but added that teams will adapt and focus on being as careful as possible.

“That’s all you can do,” he said. “Follow your own school guidelines and be as safe as you can be. … I’m pretty sure (the tournament) is still going to take place. Hopefully we survived the worst. Hopefully we’re in it now and things will get better in February.”

Freeport sports director Craig Sickels shared that optimism, although he’s not sure what the tournament games will look like.

“I think at least they will be played, but they shouldn’t be played with spectators, or a limited number of spectators,” he said. “I’m relatively confident they will go off unless something drastic happens with COVID. Probably the most drastic would be no spectators, and/or there would probably be some schools that can’t play because they don’t have enough players.”

Todd Livingston, South Portland’s athletic director, added: “Hopefully in Maine we’re tracking there’s a big peak, or we’ve already hit it or it’s coming, and then it’ll wane again,” he said. “The tournament will last about a month and I hope we as a society may be in a better place in terms of what we’re dealing with right now.”

Even if the atmosphere of the tournament looked different, Gardiner girls coach Mike Gray said the most important thing would be getting the chance to play.

“I think it would be a disappointment for the kids after having fans all winter,” he said. “But after everything they went through last year, I don’t think they would be impressed. I think once the game has started, there’s still something to play for.”

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