AUGUSTA — The Scot Laliberte Invitational is back in its rightful place.

The annual race, hosted at Cony High School, serves as the unofficial kickoff of the cross country season for area programs, but was missed last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic knocked a decision into late September whether there would be a cross country season or not. There would indeed be a season, though races were different, with staggered starts, and eventually, no state championship meet.

But Friday, the race — now in its 21st year — was back. Starts were back to normal, with runners bunched up at the beginning of the race before breaking off individually. Smiles were abundant. And for the first time in two years, the beginning of fall sports seemed normal again.

“It was a really fun day,” Cony coach Shawn Totman said. “All these coaches are people I really respect, a lot of them are good friends are mine. To see them and to see the kids, it’s just… that’s what the day was all about.”

Mt. Blue, which opted out of fall sports last year, would wind up walking away with the team title, scoring 417 points (the Laliberte Invitational combines both boys and girls scores). The Cougars were led by Emma Charles (17:11.45), who finished in third place in the girls race.

“For us, it was especially nice, because we were one of the only (Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference) schools that couldn’t compete,” Mt. Blue coach Kelley Cullenberg said. “Many of the kids we had today, this is their first high school race, because we do have a lot of freshmen and sophomores. So there was a little anxiety, I think, in general. Those that didn’t do track — and I had a very few amount of kids that did track last spring — kind of haven’t raced in a long time. I think it was nice to get the first one underway. I knew we had a good team personality, and we’ve been watching the few workouts that we’ve had, but I’ll be the first to say that what happened out there today surprised me. It’s just an amazing group of kids.”

Cony, led by Jacob Pelletier (14:18.70) who finished third in the boys race, finished in second place with 522 points, while Messalonskee, led by Caden Cote (14.27.44), finished third with 643 points.

Maranacook’s Claire Holman runs during the LaLiberte Invitational cross country meet Friday at Cony High School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I think that’s the best we’ve ever done (for Laliberte),” Totman said. “It’s hard to know what to expect, we have so many new kids on the team. A lot of kids didn’t train that much over the summer. For them to come out after just a couple weeks of preseason and do this is great. I’m just proud of them.”

Monmouth Academy senior Alexa Allen, who switched from soccer to cross country last season and helped lead the Mustangs to a Mountain Valley Conference championship, finished as the top girls runner, ending with a time of 16:13.70. The race was Allen’s first under what would be considered normal race conditions.

“I’ve never had a start like this,” Allen said. “I was sent out in waves last year, the whole season. It was a different experience. It was good. I didn’t start off very nervous, which was good. Normally, I’m very nervous. It’s better (starting the race with the sound of) a gun than the beeping that they send out in waves, and looking at the clock. That’s how it was last year, and it was unusual.”

Audrey Crews of Morse (17:07.16) finished in second place for girls.

Mt. Blue’s Tomas Cundick heads to the finish line during the LaLiberte Invitational cross country meet Friday at Cony High School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Instead of having to worry about staggered starts and COVID protocols, runners just had to worry about the humidity. Temperatures reached the low 80s during the race.

“With conditions like this, everybody feels the same way, everybody is in the same condition,” Allen said. “We just try to push through it and just know that others are in the same place and not let that get in your head. Just keep running.”

Grady Satterfield (13:08.95) of Mt. Ararat was the winner of the boys race, with Calvin Cummings of Gorham (13:34.79) finishing second and Pelletier finishing third.

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