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Apr. 7—The University of Maine's spring football season has come to a sudden halt, leaving the Black Bears disappointed and trying to determine what their next step will be.
Rhode Island, which was scheduled to play Maine on Saturday, announced Wednesday morning that it is ending its season early because of COVID-19 issues within its program.
That news came one day after New Hampshire announced it was shutting down its football program because of COVID-19. Maine had been scheduled to host New Hampshire in the season finale on April 17.
"This is completely out of our control," Maine Coach Nick Charlton said in a Zoom conference call with reporters. "It's a very difficult day for our staff and our players."
Charlton said his staff was meeting with the players throughout the day to "talk about the next steps."
Unless an opponent can be found for the April 17 opening, the Black Bears will finish the spring season with a 2-2 record.
"We're assessing what the players want to do and what they would like to attempt to do and we're also assessing what's actually out there in terms of replacing these games, which I'm going to be honest, is pretty limited right now," Charlton said.
Stony Brook, which Maine defeated 35-19 on March 20, could have been a replacement for the April 17 game. The Seawolves were scheduled to play Rhode Island that day. But Stony Brook announced Wednesday that it would not add any games to its schedule.
The Colonial Athletic Association has struggled to play football games this spring, largely because of COVID issues. Seven games were postponed or canceled through last weekend, and four games scheduled for this Saturday have been called off.
Rhode Island is the eighth Football Championship Subdivision program across the country — and the third in the CAA — to opt out of completing spring season. Nearly 50 football games have been postponed or canceled this spring because of COVID issues. Last fall, 139 games were canceled during the Football Bowl Subdivision season because of COVID.
What made Wednesday's news particularly disappointing is that Maine has not had a positive COVID-19 test result during any of its team activities. Charlton said Wednesday that he and a "handful of players" tested positive while they were at home during the school break in December and January. All were cleared — the players undergoing EKG testing upon their return, he said — before they were allowed to rejoin the team.
In all team activities — including fall practices, winter workouts and the spring season — Charlton said no player or staff member tested positive for COVID-19. The members of the program are tested three times a week: antigen tests on Sunday and Tuesday mornings and a PCR test on Thursday.
"The players have done everything we've asked them to do," said Charlton. "I can't speak for other programs, but we have 100 guys, 20 staff members, and to have no positives for the entire year, that's a credit to them.
"It's very disappointing, to be completely honest with you," he said of the canceled games. "(Our) guys have sacrificed a lot and they've done a lot. To have just a couple (test positive) when they were at home, and luckily those guys were OK and not very sick, more asymptomatic, it's a tribute to them. So it's disappointing."
Other teams at UMaine have not been as fortunate when it comes to COVID-19. The men's basketball team opted out of its last two games of the America East regular season and didn't participate in the conference tournament after having its previous eight games postponed or canceled as the team dealt with COVID-related issues. The men's hockey team was also forced to take two long pauses because of COVID protocols.
Despite the sudden halt to the season, Charlton said the Black Bears have gained much from their time together. The team is loaded with sophomores and freshman.
"I think we kind of assessed where we're at and it tells a lot where we need to go from here and what we need to do," said Charlton. "I saw it with the staff and talked to players about it. In order to move this younger team along, we need to really develop over the summer and get the younger guys bigger and faster and stronger and ready to go."
He added, "We need to get them ready to go fast. There's some elite teams in the conference that we lost to, and at the same time there are some excellent teams that we beat. We probably are who we are right now, which is 2-2, but we want to be better than that. ... We want to try to build a consistent winner here. But we've got to develop our younger players to get there."
Maine is scheduled to begin its fall season on Sept. 4 at home against Delaware. Charlton said he expects to have most, if not all, of the players back for the fall season. The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for all NCAA athletes this year because of the pandemic.
Alfond Stadium will have a new artificial turf surface for the fall season as part of the school's $110 million athletic facilities master plan.