As the summer progressed, Caitlin Tremberth saw less and less enthusiasm from her Biddeford High field hockey players during their virtual meetings.
“The first four, we had good turnouts,” said Tremberth, who led Biddeford to the Class A state championship in 2018 and the Class A South title in 2019. “Then we saw a little less. At first, they were, ‘Oh we’re together!’ Then that died down … . I just think the whole summer is a long time for them to be responsible to do things on their own.”
Tremberth and most high school coaches in southern Maine – those in the Southwestern Maine Activities Association and the Western Maine Conference – have been unable to work in-person with their athletes during the summer of coronavirus. Traditionally, summer workouts supervised by coaches are seen as a key for preparing athletes for the start of official team practices.
Although the Maine Principals’ Association has allowed summer conditioning programs since early July, school superintendents in Cumberland and York counties have prohibited in-person athletic activities on school grounds to increase the chances of a safe reopening of schools in September. Those counties have accounted for two-thirds of Maine’s COVID-19 cases.
Schools in the SMAA and WMC cannot hold in-person conditioning workouts until Sept. 8, the delayed scheduled start date of fall sports tryouts. The MPA plans to determine the course of the fall season by Thursday.
Tremberth isn’t the only one who noticed a drop in enthusiasm. Larry Nichols, the volleyball coach of two-time defending Class A champion Falmouth, said the interest in virtual meetings has been uneven. “It really went up and down,” said Nichols. “Then big difference was between returning starters and veterans, and the sophomores who aren’t quite sure of their place on the team.”
Without being able to work with athletes in-person, coaches in southern Maine are having to trust that their athletes are doing the workouts provided to them.
Mike Andreasen, the boys’ soccer coach at Greely High in Cumberland, said there is only so much he can do during virtual meetings. “You just can’t have training sessions during Zooms,” he said. “So I sent the kids some guidance, some stuff for them to do. But who knows if they’ve been doing it?”
“I sent out stuff like that,” Nichols said of workout plans. “But you can’t make them do it. I’d come up with different options for them to pursue. But it’s all about trust, and I think all coaches, when we’ve had a chance to talk, all of us have that pit in our stomach.”
Marcia Wood, the field hockey coach at Freeport High, said she’ll find out quickly who’s been working out: The Falcons have a timed mile run to start their first practice.
“You can do stuff virtually, but it is hard,” she said of interaction with players. “It’s hard to motivate them and it’s hard for me to get them to do it. I hope they do what they need to do. And that’s all you can do, keep getting ready and keep the faith.”
But coaches are more concerned with the mental health of their players than their physical fitness. The first week or so of practices, whenever they begin, will be spent on conditioning. But coaches need to make sure their players are in a good place mentally for what will be a shortened season.
Andreasen said he has already had two players tell him they were opting out of playing this fall.
“I worry what the kids’ mental psyche is now,” he said. “It’s been really hard. These seniors, who might have their last soccer season possibly taken away, saw what happened to the lacrosse and baseball kids last spring. They saw the mental anguish they went through. I worry what place they’re in now, mentally.”
He said he has seen a couple of his players throughout the summer on his trips to town. “They’re doing the best they can,” he said. “But they seem flabbergasted at what they can do next.”
“There’s just been this huge void,” said Tremberth. “I think this is less of a physical piece than a mental piece right now.”
Emma Tirrell, the volleyball coach at Gorham, is concerned that the lack of summer contact will have “a huge domino effect of the season.”
“We value having the summer season in Maine,” she said. “In the summer, there’s no pressure. And I think we miss that.”
“It’s not going to be best sport we see by the end of the season,” said Andreasen. “Because we need that (whole) preseason, and we also missed the summer. It’s just unknown right now.”
Freeport’s Wood, who has 15 seniors on her team, said coaches will have to adjust their expectations.
“Right now, we don’t even know what we’re preparing for,” she said. “The (postseason) tournament? Are we doing that? Do we even get that far? So maybe instead of competition, we should focus on just being together. I want them to enjoy every second, because, who knows?”