The coronavirus pandemic has caused the same core problem for athletic administrators and coaches across the state: How do you create a schedule that meets ever-evolving state and local safety standards and still provides opportunities for student athletes?
At the public school level, it’s been done by reducing the number of games and playing teams within the same geographic region.
At private prep schools, the answers have been harder to find. Their normal opponents are scattered across New England, but this winter there is no out-of-state travel. Particularly hard hit have been the boys’ and girls’ hockey programs at North Yarmouth Academy and Berwick Academy. Those athletes come to the school in large part because of what the hockey programs offer – typically 30 or more games a season, with trips across New England, and a very real opportunity to enhance their hockey futures.
“A big reason I did (come) to NYA was because it opened playing at a higher level while also not having to leave home,” said Derek Wolverton, a senior defenseman from Lewiston who is in his second season with the Panthers. “I get to maximize my years to stay at home while also getting the most out of my hockey career.”
This season, Wolverton knows his new teammates, including several from Quebec, aren’t coming close to getting the full prep experience.
“The bus rides. That’s the big one. Riding down to games together as a team on the coach bus. That builds chemistry like no other,” he said.
This winter, NYA and Berwick have cobbled together six- to eight-game schedules – less than what most public schools will play. The Berwick girls have even played against a 14-under boys’ club team and their own JV boys’ team just to get in some competition.
“It’s been hard. It’s a hard thing for our kids not to have what they are use to experiencing and what we’ve tried to create here,” said Rob Quinn, the athletic director at Berwick Academy, a day school in South Berwick. “I would call hockey here, for both boys and girls, leadership sports. These sports play our toughest and biggest schedules.”
Making things even harder is that some of their regular prep partners in Maine that are boarding schools have eliminated competitive athletics during the pandemic.
“A lot of the boarding schools have gone with the testing, bubbled, more collegiate approach of keeping their students completely on campus and limiting visitors,” she said. “That’s led to no hockey being played at a lot of prep schools. In Maine, Kents Hill and Hebron are major losses for us on the girls’ side.”
‘LUCKY TO BE PLAYING GAMES AT ALL’
One team the NYA boys’ hockey team has been able to play is Lewiston High. NYA was champion of the Holt Conference, a New England-based prep school hockey league, the past two years. Lewiston has won four of the past five Maine Principals’ Association Class A titles.
Wednesday night at Travis Roy Arena – NYA’s on-campus rink in Yarmouth – the two teams met for the second of three scheduled meetings. The Panthers, with a deeper, older roster that includes seven players from Quebec and five others from outside of Maine, pulled away with a three-goal spree in the third period to win 4-0.
Both teams appreciated the opportunity to play such a spirited, competitive game that was scoreless until NYA’s Cal Mansfield of Danvers, Massachusetts, scored the first of his two goals with 5:48 left in the second 18-minute period.
Games have been infrequent. The NYA boys will only play eight this year, against three opponents, facing Bridgton Academy four times and one game against Berwick Academy. The NYA girls have six games against five teams: two against Lewiston, and single games against Berwick Academy, Scarborough, Yarmouth/Freeport, and St. Dominic/Winthrop/Gray-New Gloucester.
NYA forward Michael Belleau played for Lewiston last season but transferred to NYA to repeat his junior year. His father, Jamie Belleau, is Lewiston’s longtime and highly successful coach.
“He’s not here just for hockey. He’s here for the whole package so he’ll be fine,” Jamie Belleau said.
NYA (and Berwick) have been able to offer their players something few public schools have been able to do this school year: full-time, in-person learning.
“The in-person learning, that’s a big plus,” Michael Belleau said.
Matt Janiszewski, 19, is NYA’s lone postgrad player this year. From Kirkland, Quebec, Janiszewski has become an immediate team leader according to head coach Mike Warde, a former NCAA Division I assistant at Army, Alabama-Huntsville and Iona.
For Janiszewski, NYA represented a place where he could play.
“You think Canada, it’s hockey crazy, but everything’s shut down up there,” he said. “It’s only the junior programs playing. Juniors and professional. I was lucky enough to find NYA and have the opportunity to play some hockey games this year, which I wouldn’t have had back up north.”
The NYA team has had access to its home ice for conditioning drills and then practices since the start of the school year – though the rink has been shut down at times because of state COVID-19 safety measures.
“Looking at what other people I know from up north or around North America that aren’t playing right now, I just feel lucky to be playing games at all,” Janiszewski said. “But after making friends here and hearing students telling stories about coming to Saturday night hockey games, that’s something I wish I could have been here for, seeing Travis Roy Arena packed.”
CAUGHT BETWEEN TWO STATES
Berwick Academy’s athletic teams play in either the Eastern Independent League or the larger umbrella of the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council. That means Quinn had to find scheduling solutions for all of his teams. At NYA, only the hockey teams play a prep school schedule.
For basketball, the Berwick Bulldogs have picked up games against schools in southern Maine, including neighbors Marshwood, an MPA Class A school, and Seacoast Christian, a Class D program. Like all teams in York County, the Bulldogs were unable to even practice for six weeks in the fall, and then again from early December to late January because York County was “yellow” in the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded health advisory for risk of COVID-19 transmission. Until Jan. 20, a yellow designation meant no athletic practices or games could be held.
However, the Berwick Academy hockey teams were able to continue to practice because they play at Dover Ice Arena, just over the New Hampshire border, where they’ve been long-time tenants with their own locker rooms and preferred after-school ice times.
“It’s about five miles down the road and we have a great relationship with the arena. We have our Mike Eruzione locker rooms,” Quinn said, noting the 1980 Olympic “Miracle on Ice” captain was a postgrad player at Berwick Academy. “That’s our home.”
While being in a different state had practice benefits, it made scheduling games even more difficult. Berwick had to play only teams from New Hampshire.
“If your home site is in another state, that’s where you stay. If we had played in a Maine rink, we would not have been allowed back in Dover Arena,” Quinn said.
But the New Hampshire prep schools formed their own bubble, excluding Berwick Academy. That left only club teams, of which there are very few on the girls’ side.
“It’s been very unique, having played a boys’ (14U) club team, to our own boys’ JV to a couple of games against girls’ club programs,” said Berwick girls’ hockey coach Kelly Souza. “In a typical year, we wouldn’t see such variety, but we’re doing what we can to get the girls on the ice and provide the competition piece.”
Berwick will play regular-season finales at NYA this week.
“And then that’s it and we won’t go back to our home rink. That will be the end of the season,” Quinn said.
BUBBLE APPROACH AT KENTS HILL
Located 14 miles northwest of Augusta, Kents Hill is a picturesque, small boarding school with an international student body, supplemented by a small group of day students. When the school year began, the decision was made to keep Kents Hill students and staff as insulated as possible by greatly restricting travel off campus or visitation on campus. Only the cross country and mountain biking teams in the fall and Alpine skiing this winter have competed.
“We have established a pretty strong bubble here. We’re very, very fortunate, with no cases on our own campus, but we’re restrictive and prohibitive of what our kids can do,” said Nan Hambrose, in her third year as the school’s athletic director.
Kents Hill has put its Harold and Ted Alfond Athletic Center to maximum school use for 3-on-3 style competitions in hockey and basketball, free skating, and workouts for all students. But it’s all in-house, and Hambrose said, “I don’t foresee this spring being any different than fall and winter.”
One team at Kents Hill will get at least one game this winter. The girls’ basketball team, which has practiced since November, will play for the first time this week in the central Maine tournament organized by Winthrop High. The Kents Hill girls normally play in MPA Class C South. Hambrose said the school decided the girls could play because many are day students and the school will be between semesters, with most students and staff off campus.
“I’ve said through all this, ‘Just give me one win.’ Getting to play, that’s our one win. We’ll be the last seeded team, but that’s OK,” Hambrose said.