The 2020 state high school cross country championships had been scheduled for this week in Bangor. The cancellation will affect hundreds of runners. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

The Maine Principals’ Association canceled the state cross country championships on Monday, citing concerns about the recent spike in COVID-19 cases and a new rule requiring high school athletes to wear face masks during competition.

The meets were scheduled to be held this week at Bangor’s Saxl Park. The Class A, B, and C races for boys would have been Wednesday, and the girls’ races were scheduled for Saturday. The cancellation affects hundreds of student-athletes who had qualified for the state meets.

“I think it was the inevitable call,” said Falmouth High co-coach Jorma Kurry. Falmouth’s Sofie Matson and Ben Greene were the favorites to win the Class A girls’ and boys’ races. “They couldn’t see a way to have it under the current guidelines.”

In a press release from the MPA, the two primary reasons for canceling the meet were outlined:

• Bringing students together from all parts of Maine while the state is experiencing a significant increase in COVID-19 cases.

• A new state mandate for student-athletes to wear masks during competition. Many cross country runners have not been acclimated to wearing masks while competing in a high-stake race since the requirement was announced on Friday.

“Asking cross country runners to run in a mask is a cruel parody of running,” said David Dowling, head coach at Greely which had the top qualifying boys’ team in the Western Maine Conference Class B meet. “I can’t say I would have rather not run, but it would have been a strange sight. If they had had a season to get used to it, that would have been different.”

The MPA release also stated, “We received a great deal of feedback from school administrators and coaches regarding this meet and all concerns were heard. We also know that there will be a great deal of disappointment from those scheduled to compete in this race.”

The decision was made after a joint meeting between the MPA’s cross country and sports medicine committees, said Mike Bisson, the MPA’s assistant executive director and chief liaison for cross country.

Prior to that meeting, Bisson said, “The real issue is: is it prudent to have a statewide meet when you’re seeing 200 (positive) cases (Monday)? That’s really the big issue but the discomfort of the mask has its own challenges.”

On Monday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 204 new COVID-19 cases, the highest single-day total in the state.

Andrew Lupien, cross country coach at Cape Elizabeth, said he saw his share of tears after telling his boys’ and girls’ teams their seasons were over. Both had qualified for the Class B championship meets.

“In a couple of weeks they’ll probably be pretty happy. We came about as close to a full season as any of the fall sports,” Lupien said. “But when you get less than 48 hours away (for the boys) to a state title meet, it’s tough. They were super close. We were almost there.”

Both Lupien and Mt. Ararat Coach Diane Fournier said the bus travel would not have been a cause for significant concern, because only one seven-person team, a coach (or two) and the bus driver would have been on the trip.

“We were going to have seven kids on a bus that holds 60-something kids,” Fournier said.

Fournier said her team had already started to run on their own while wearing masks over the weekend. Three of her athletes are asthmatic “and they wanted to run.”

“If you were going by the vote of the 14 kids, they all would have gone,” Fournier said.

Ted Brown, the Waterville girls’ cross country coach whose team won the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B title on Oct. 31, was not surprised to learn of the cancellation.

“We saw this coming,” he said. “We thought we could maybe get this in, but we won’t. I won’t say we aren’t disappointed because we are. There were just so many things that can sabotage the efforts and the numbers haven’t been good. We’re glad we got in what we could get in. We got the KVACs in, and we won them. We just have to take this in stride.”

Concern over the pandemic had already forced the MPA to move the site from its original location at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast after Waldo County was placed in the “yellow” category by the Maine Department of Education. The MPA canceled the annual regional meets this year because they often exceed 200 runners, well above state limits for outdoor gatherings. Instead, teams and individuals qualified for the state championships via conference meets.

The state meets planned to have nine teams of up to seven runners and six to eight individual runners in each class to keep the fields well under the state’s 100-person limit for outside gatherings. Because cross country is a low-risk sport, there was optimism runners would join golfers as the only Maine high school athletes to compete for state team and individual championships this fall.

But over the past week, the seven-day daily average of new COVID-19 cases has more than doubled, from 77.8 on Nov. 2 to 160.9 on Monday. And, on Friday, state agencies and the MPA clarified that masks are mandatory while practicing and competing for both indoor and outdoor athletics, effective immediately.

“So we’ve been practicing in masks since Friday and the kids weren’t thrilled with it but they were learning and adjusting to it,” Kurry said.

The boys’ cross country championships had been held every year since 1964. The girls’ championships began in 1976. The New England Championship, which typically includes Maine’s top runners, had previously been canceled.

Central Maine Newspapers sports editor Bill Stewart contributed to this report.


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