The 2020 Maine cross country season tripped right before the finish line when an uptick in COVID-19 cases forced the Maine Principals’ Association to cancel the state championships just days before the scheduled races at Bangor’s Saxl Park.

This season, central Maine coaches hope the course won’t be so bumpy.

“It felt like last year, the shoes could drop any moment. And it feels like it could happen again this year,” Winthrop coach Ed Van Tassel said in the preseason as another spike in COVID infections gripped the state. “But I’m not going to waste too much energy thinking about it because there’s really nothing you can do about it.”

Runners form a tight pack during the annual LaLiberte Invitational cross country meet on Aug. 27 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

As with other high school sports last fall and winter, cross country was conducted under surreal circumstances. Races, held in front of a minimum of spectators, were conducted in waves, with runners leaving the start line one group at a time. Despite the hurdles, the state meets appeared to be in sight; Van Tassel’s Ramblers even visited Saxl Park to preview the course before the MPA called everything off.

At least Winthrop and other schools got to compete against each other. Mt. Blue only ran intrasquad meets after the school board voted to suspend all fall sports.

“I didn’t want to read the newspaper, I didn’t want to look at results; it just hurt,” said Kelley Cullenberg, who is closing in on three decades as Mt. Blue’s coach. “We had time trials every week. We had captains and uniforms, all the while knowing we weren’t going to be able to compete, and we tried to have as normal a season as you can without other teams.”

Should this season approach normalcy, the state championships are scheduled for Oct. 30 at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast.

After last year’s disappointment, Cullenberg and Mount Blue are on a mission. The Cougars return nine boys and nine girls, led by seniors Tomas Cundick, Isaiah Doscinski, Sam Goodspeed, Alex Hardy, Sam Judkins and Evan Wilcox on the boys side. Emma Charles, Abbie Cramer and Brynne Robbins, plus junior sisters Bridget Reusch and Moriah Reusch will help lead the girls. Both squads also have plenty of eager freshmen, Cullenberg said.

Waterville’s Abby Williams competes in the KVAC Class B cross country championship last season at Quarry Road in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Brian (Kelly, assistant coach) and I are very excited, as are the kids, about what potentially could happen for both squads this season,” Cullenberg said. “I think my kids have added incentive, because 1) many haven’t raced at the high school level yet; and 2) many of the veteran runners are going be like, ‘wow, let’s see what we can do.’”

The Waterville girls return six runners from last fall’s Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B championship squad, led by junior Abby Williams (fourth at the KVAC meet) and sophomores Beatrice Beale-Tate (12th) and Annmarie Limberger (15th). The boys, who had only two scorers last season, bring back junior Andrew Turlo and senior Noah Koch, who sat out last season. Joshua Way, who won the KVAC boys title last season, has moved away.

“We feel very fortunate to have what we had last season, because we didn’t know what we would be allowed or what we’d be able to do,” coach Ted Brown said.

Cony coach Shawn Totman has high hopes for a girls team that returns seniors Grace Kirk, Bri Harriman and Jenna Hanoian and sophomore Ayla Noftall, complemented by newcomers Sage Fortin, Emma Brown, Loralie Grady and Tenzin Denno.

“Kirk, Harriman, and Fortin bring talent, experience, and leadership,” Totman said in an email. “Brown, Grady, Noftall, Hanoian and Denno bring a bit of depth that we often don’t have.”

The boys, meanwhile, return nine runners, led by senior Jacob Pelletier, who placed 13th at last year’s KVAC Class B South meet. Classmates Ryan Pelletier and Isaiah Breitmeyer, junior Sam Coffin and sophomores Sam Goldey, James Mooney, Brandon Mastriano, Kyle Mastriano and Tyler Pelletier also return.

“Most of our top runners did an excellent job with their summer training and enter the fall season in good long-distance running shape,” Totman said. “If the guys embrace a ‘run for each other’ attitude, then this could be a special group.”

Lawrence coach Tim Alberts is in a rebuilding mode, as the boys return three runners (seniors Trey Goodwin, Ryan Bowley and Maximus Openshaw) and zero girls, although Alberts anticipates at least four newcomers to fill out the girls’ side.

“At this point, the season will be a success if each athlete improves each week,” Alberts said in an email.

In the Mountain Valley Conference, Monmouth is in search of a few good runners despite sweeping the MVC meets last year. Although the Mustangs return seven boys, including two of their top five finishers from last year’s MVC championship, the girls bring back only four runners and zero newcomers. With COVID-19 precautions in place, 21st-year coach Tom Menendez didn’t have a chance to meet with potential runners from the middle or high schools last year, but he has vowed to “beat the bushes” for new runners this fall.

Winthrop’s James Cognata runs out of the woods during the Mountain Valley Conference championship meet last season at Maranacook Community School in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The girls return senior Alexa Allen, a soccer convert who won the MVC individual title last fall, and juniors MacKenzie Grant, Holly Hunt and Allison Lewis. On the boys’ side, juniors Brosnan Comeau and Osten Smith turned in top-10 finishes as last year’s MVC meet.

“Hopefully we can build up the numbers and put out two competitive teams like we did last year,” Menendez said. “it’s going to be question of who’s going to have the numbers this year once school starts.”

Winthrop returns most of its boys team from last year, including junior James Cognata, who placed third at last year’s MVC Class B meet and bagged state titles in the 200 and 400 meters last spring for the Ramblers’ boys track team. Last March, he placed second in the 800 meters as the AAU Indoor National Championships.

“He’s really committed to this,” Van Tassel said. “He’s ready to rock ‘n’ roll and have a good season and be ready to compete regardless of what meet we’re in.”

Senior Patrick Bellemere and sophomores Chris Pottle, Eben Michaud and Carter Slocum round out the returnees. The girls have only two runners and will be “starting from scratch,” Van Tassel said.

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