The often long bus trips from one small town to another are part of the sacrifice made by players, coaches, parents and fans of the Aroostook County high school basketball teams every winter.
So when Van Buren’s boys and girls squads travel south from the St. John’s Valley to Danforth on Thursday – a trip that can take up to two hours one way depending on weather and road conditions – that’s generally not serious.
This year, it’s a big deal for the Crusaders, who with this trip will become the last varsity teams in the state to start their regular 2021-22 seasons, which for most schools in the state started near a month earlier on the weekend of December. 10-11.
It’s a game night many around Van Buren weren’t sure would come this winter due to lingering concerns over COVID-19.
“The kids cared, parents cared, coaches cared,” said Steve Lapierre, longtime Van Buren boys’ coach. âWe didn’t know how it was going to turn out, and in the future, we still don’t know what is going to happen. We’re just going to take it day by day. We’re just happy to have a season right now.
Rising COVID-19 rates in the county in late fall prompted schools in the SAD 24 communities of Van Buren, Hamlin and Cyr Plantation to switch to distance learning from November 19 to December 23, start of the Christmas holidays.
That meant no practice for Van Buren’s basketball teams starting Nov. 22, when state teams could start preparing for the upcoming season according to the Maine Principals’ winter sports schedule. Association.
A subsequent school board vote allowed Van Buren’s teams to start training at the start of the Christmas vacation, and a December 28 vote restored in-person learning to schools this week when students returned from vacation.
âThey voted to allow our kids to start training on December 23 because that’s when our distance education ended. Basketball player and coach of Buren who is now the sports administrator of his alma mater.
Since then, it’s been about catching up at Van Buren, a school with an enrollment of 75 students in grades 9-12 and enough basketball players to field college teams.
The men’s Crusaders had completed six practices and a scrimmage against the Caribou High School junior varsity team on Tuesday morning, and with the trip to East Grand barely 48 hours away, Lapierre was doing his best to further familiarize his players. with the team’s offense. and defensive systems.
âNothing will be refined,â he said. “What will suffer is the conditioning because you don’t have that three week period. [before games usually start] when you can really work hard on conditioning.
“You’re going to have to make a sacrifice here and there because if you want to be conditioned you’re probably not going to have that many games and you won’t be as polished at what you do.”
Lapierre welcomed 10 players in training on Monday, up from just five last week.
âWe had a few more kids last year, but I have a few more kids this year, whether it’s due to COVID or the late start that didn’t join,â he said. “Whatever the reason, we have a couple of kids who could probably play but who aren’t.”
The boys’ roster includes three players with no college experience, but seven returning players from the 2020-21 squad who finished 11-3 and reached the Aroostook League Division II playoff championship game – a streak regionalized playoff that replaced the canceled statewide tournament last winter.
âWe have a good back body,â said Lapierre. âI hope we will be able to compete well during the year. Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be playing our best ball and the kids are comfortable with what we’re doing. That’s the point.
First-year women’s college coach Brian Massey faces an even greater competitive challenge.
Massey ran a limited offseason basketball program after being hired in midsummer, then held Zoom meetings three times a week when practices weren’t allowed during the traditional winter preseason for introduce more players to their system.
He hopes to have eight players available Thursday, including an eighth-grader and two more who have never played basketball before.
âEveryone is trying really hard, but I understand the situation we’re in,â said Massey, former college basketball coach at Caribou and varsity tennis coach at Presque Isle High School.
âThere are a lot of things going against us this year, but the girls are positive. They are optimistic. They just want to play.
Van Buren’s boys and girls teams will play 17 of their initially scheduled 18 regular season games, coronavirus and weather permitting.
âThe other athletic directors have been fantastic in being willing to do things that you wouldn’t normally do on the schedule,â said Rossignol. “You would never give your kids four games in six days, but the DAs have been very flexible in understanding the situation we find ourselves in and I am very grateful for that.”
Van Buren’s adjusted coronavirus schedule is considerably more condensed than usual, as the Crusaders’ regular season finals are scheduled at home against Wisdom of Saint Agatha on February 9.
That’s 17 games each in 35 days, and after removing the five Sundays where high school practice isn’t allowed, that means more games than practice once the season has started.
âYou just hope the kids react and you don’t get a lot of injuries and you can compete,â said Lapierre. âIt will be on-the-job training when we start the games. You just have to try to figure out what you want to get into and be more proficient, and the rest is going to use up a lot of early downtime.