GORHAM — When the Southwestern Maine Track Conference season convenes on Dec. 9, it will be unlike any before.
For the first time in generations, the 17-team league will not be competing at the Portland Exposition Building on Park Avenue, after calling it home for more than 85 years.
The league, which includes teams from as far north as Windham and as far south as Noble, will run its season at the University of Southern Maine Field House in Gorham this year.
Just prior to the 2011-2012 school year, the athletic directors from the Southern Maine Activities Association voted 10-4, with three abstentions, to leave the Expo due to safety concerns with the 52-year old track.
Tom Blake, the meet director for both the boys’ and girls’ leagues said the 140-meter wooden bank track has seen “serious deterioration” as of late.
“Over the last few years there hasn’t been a meet where we haven’t had to stop competition, get off the track and fix it,” said Blake, who has been a track official at the Expo for 40 years.
Blake said between the wear and tear of tens of thousands of runners using it over the years, the bolts were not holding the portable track in place and some of the wooden boards were rotting.
A committee made up of coaches, parents, track officials and community members was formed a few years ago to look into raising funds for a new state-of-the-art track.
Blake, a member of the group, said the committee never came up with a cost estimate for the new track, but did have some local businesses such as Hannaford Bros., Pepsi-Cola, and Hammond Lumber express interest in helping the cause.
However, the plan never came to fruition and the athletic directors decided to look into relocating the league rather than updating the existing track.
“I don’t think they ever had an engineer come in to quantify what needed to be done to the track, but there were definitely areas that needed to be replaced,” said George Mendros, Thornton Academy’s boys’ indoor track coach since 1996.
Many of the coaches, Mendros included, were supportive of staying at the Expo, in part because of the atmosphere of the 97-year-old building.
“To me, running track at the Expo was a high school sport the way it should be,” Mendros said. “Spectators are right there on top of the action.”
Greg Wilkinson, longtime coach of the Bonny Eagle boys’ team, said that feeling will be lost at USM because the seating will be across from where the runners will finish, making it much more difficult to follow races.
Nevertheless both Wilkinson and Mendros agree it will provide a better experience for the athletes, in part because of the improved track, but also because they will be able to participate in the triple jump, long jump and pole vault, events not possible at the Expo.
“You always want the athletes to have the best facility possible. The Expo didn’t provide that,” said Ron Kelly, who has been coaching the Scarborough High School girls’ team since 1996. “We are definitely looking forward to it. It’s more conducive to the races we run at the end of the season at (the state championships). At the Expo, there was always a conversion factor for the state races. Those, unfortunately, were never perfect.”
Wilkinson said the league’s teams have always done well at the state championship despite the running conditions of the Expo.
In fact, six of the past nine boys’ Class A state champions were from the conference. Conference teams have won the last nine girls’ state championships, including the past seven by Scarborough.
To repeat that success again this year, teams will have to get used to several changes in how the meets will operate at USM.
Rather than running in duel, tri, or quad meets, teams will be running against five or six other teams. To save time, the boys’ and girls’ races will alternate and the finals will be based on time rather than on heat finish, like they were in the Expo.
The schedule is also different. Meets will run on select Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and during the week from 5:30 – 10 p.m. Teams will not be running six straight Saturdays like they did at the Expo, but rather, at less frequent meets over a nine-week period from December to February.
“I am all for changes,” Wilkinson said, “But it will be very difficult to let go of the Expo.”
While the high school program is leaving, the middle school track program will continue to operate at the Expo, at least for now.
The Southern Maine Middle School Indoor Track Conference will continue holding meets at the Expo, but on a redesigned track.
Wilkinson, who runs the conference with Blake, said the newly-designed 134 meter track, which was tested by athletes at Deering High School, will have shorter straightaways and longer turns.
Middle school athletic directors looked at running at USM as well, said Blake, but the college could not accommodate the league in March, when it operates. There was a possibility, he noted, that the middle school program could run at the facility in November prior to the college basketball season, but the athletic directors ultimately decided against that.
Running another season at the Expo, the athletic directors decided, was the best available option.
“The ADs really understood the fact that it would be really devastating if there was not a track program for the middle school,” Wilkinson said.
Blake has not given up hope that one day the high school program will return to the Expo.
“I still believe we can build a state of the art track in that building,” he said.