Things are going to be different at the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championships this time.

The throngs of fans and supporters throughout the course? Those will be gone. The massive starts at the beginning of one of the largest meets of the year? Gone as well.

It will look unusual. But this fall, what else is new?

“It’s been a different season, all year,” Messalonskee coach Vanessa Holman said. “But the kids have done well adapting.”

The adapting will continue at the KVAC championships, which will be held Saturday at Cony High School (for Class A) and Quarry Road Trails in Waterville (for Class B). This year, there will be wave starts, something most teams have become familiar with but some (like Waterville) have yet to experience. State qualifying will be taking place, meaning only four teams from Class A and three from Class B will move on and most will see their seasons end.

And in Class A, where 13 teams are competing, the teams won’t all be together — six will be competing in the morning while seven will run in the afternoon, in the hopes of keeping crowd numbers down with COVID safety in mind.

“It really is quite a juggling act,” Cony coach Shawn Totman said. “We’re trying to make sure we rigidly adhere to the MPA, the CDC, the state and Augusta School Department guidelines in keeping the kids safe, the coaches safe, the meet workers safe, and also try to give these kids the best experience we can in such a strange (circumstance).”

Messalonskee’s Tieran Croft, left, and Caden Cody settle into their pace during Thursday’s cross country meet at Auburn Middle School. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

It means, however, that there will be a lot of wait-and-see in Class A. Four spots in the state meet are up for grabs (as well as two spots for the top runners not on qualifying teams), but teams that go in the morning will have to wait until the afternoon races are finished to know exactly how the dust settled. The Messalonskee boys, for example, are seeded fifth, but they run in the morning and will have to wait a few hours to know if they edged fourth-seeded Hampden Academy for a spot in the state meet in November.

“It’s definitely going to be a lot more competitive,” Messalonskee’s Dylan Flewelling said. “It’ll be a different sort of competition, where you’re not actually racing the (team) head to head. No matter what time you run, you never know what time the other people in the other race are going to run. … You’ve got to go 100 percent, and hope your 100 percent is better than theirs.”

It’s a high bar to clear. In previous years, just running in the top half of scoring teams at regionals got a team to states. This year, teams must come in the top four of 13 teams in Class A and top three of eight teams in B.

Off days have never been more costly. There are fewer shoo-ins for state spots. And the pressure is on.

“There’s definitely a lot less room for error. You’ve really got to just go for it,” Flewelling said. “Nothing’s guaranteed, and there’s a lot of pressure, I guess. Just make sure that on Saturday, you give it your all and hopefully it’s enough.”

The limited berths mean some teams that in normal years would make it to states won’t make the cut this time.

“I’ve talked to my coach a lot about it and my teammates, and we all know that even though it is unfair, there’s not much we can do about it,” Cony’s Grace Kirk said. “The only thing that we can do right is make the best of the situation and perform to the best of our abilities.”

“You’ve just got to rise to the occasion. You can’t worry about stuff like that,” Totman said. “I wish more teams and more kids could get in, but you know what? It’s not going to happen this year. So you can’t dwell on what you wish. You’ve got to go out and make it happen. I’ve just tried to talk to my kids about (how) that’s the mentality you’ve got to have.”

Winslow runner Olivia Tiner (593) leads Waterville’s Abby Williams (592) and other away from the start during a cross country meet Thursday at Quarry Road Trails in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The situation became easier for teams in Class B when Medomak Valley and Gardiner dropped out of the running, bringing the field from 10 to eight. Waterville coach Ted Brown said he’s not trying to stress out his runners going in.

“We have a great chance. We’re feeling really good this year,” he said. “We haven’t really talked much about who we have to beat. I know the kids are talking about that some, but I haven’t really emphasized that.”

In addition to having different stakes, the KVACs will have a different look this year. Wave races send one group out at a time in regular intervals, meaning runners are joined by only a handful of competitors at a time — and as the race goes on, they often end up running by themselves.

It’s unusual enough that Messalonskee’s Holman had her runners practice in waves, just to get them used to the idea of trying to catch runners in front of them and hold off runners in back.

“We’ve done different things where … they’re spaced out, just to simulate how the races have kind of ended up being,” she said. “We’ve had a race where they’re just trying to catch people in the wave in front of them. ‘There’s someone in front of you, try to go get them. You know they’re this many seconds ahead of you.’ ”

It’s an odd look. But the runners see the good in it.

“We like that there won’t be as many people on the start line,” Brown said. “Because it just feels safer. … It’s about how safe do we feel with 70 people in a race? … They just want to be safe. They want to have the race, but they want to be safe.”

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