In this October 2019 file photo, competitors in the Class A girls race begin Northern cross country championships in Belfast. The Maine Principals' Association has canceled this year's state-title meets citing concerns about COVID-19. (Natalie Williams | BDN)

The Bangor High School cross country program began preparing for the 2020 season by running more than 11,000 miles during summer workouts.

That foundation helped the Rams sweep the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A championships on Halloween, but as they began practice Monday they got the news they expected throughout the fall but still did not want to hear.

Their race for the ultimate prize would come up 3.1 miles short as the Maine Principals’ Association announced the cancellation of this week’s state championship meets because of COVID-19.

“From the get-go they knew that getting to the end was an unknown, yet they ran 11,000-plus miles over the summer, they played by the rules, they wore their masks, they did everything right in the hope they would get a chance to get to the end of the season,” Bangor cross country coach Roger Huber said.

The state championships for boys and girls in Classes A, B and C, normally held on the same day, had already been split into separate sessions. That concession was made to comply with the state’s coronavirus-related 100-person outdoor gathering limit. The boys were scheduled to run Wednesday and the girls were slated to compete Saturday, both at Saxl Park in Bangor.

MPA assistant executive director Mike Bisson said the decision to cancel followed a meeting Monday with members of the MPA’s sports medicine and cross country committees.

“I feel terrible for the kids, especially the seniors who have lost a lot of things over the last year or so,” Bisson said. “It’s not something we take lightly by any stretch of the imagination. We know how much it means to kids, they have a goal and they’ve been working toward it.

“It’s just another lousy thing that’s gone on in the last eight months.”

Bisson said the MPA’s decision to cancel the championships stemmed from two major concerns.

One was bringing runners from all parts of Maine to the races amid a significant recent increase in statewide COVID-19 cases.

The 177 cases reported Monday by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention marked the latest single-day total for the state since the pandemic’s arrival in March and the latest of several recent days when the total exceeded 100.

The seven-day average for new coronavirus cases in Maine is 160.9, up from 99.9 a week ago and 44.4 two weeks ago.

The state championship meet for cross country followed a localized regular-season schedule and a regionalized state-meet qualifying process involving conference championship races.

“When you’re looking at what came out last week with the community sports guidelines and shutting the fall down and kind of taking a hiatus until December for the winter sports, bringing kids from every corner of Maine to a state meet as our [COVID-19] numbers are rising quickly, it caused some angst, that’s for sure,” Bisson said.

Another issue prompting the MPA to cancel the cross country state championships involved part of Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order late last week that requires student-athletes to wear masks during competition.

Cross country runners had worn masks before and after their events but not during races until Friday. That left little time to acclimatize themselves to wearing masks while on the course.

Bisson attended a season-ending Penobscot Valley Conference meet at Saxl Park on Saturday where runners competed while wearing face coverings.

“There were kids that struggled,” he said. “Obviously these weren’t the state championship competitors and it was a warm day, but you’ve got to take all of these factors into account and certainly it does make a difference where they haven’t been training with them all year. That was a real safety concern for us.”

Bisson emailed athletic administrators at schools that would have had runners competing at states to share those concerns and seek feedback.

“A lot of them put it out to their coaches,” Bisson said. “Certainly the coaches wanted to try it, but the ADs were a little more reserved. A lot of people were very concerned about running it, and in fact many potentially were not going to send their kids anyway.”

Cross country and golf were the only sports designated as low risk by the state and MPA this fall, enabling statewide championship events to be scheduled. Golf state champions were crowned in early October.

The Bangor boys cross country team, runner-up at the last two Class A state meets, was poised to take that championship step this week. The Rams rose to No. 1 in the state’s MileSplit rankings after a convincing victory at the KVAC meet over defending state champion Mt. Ararat of Topsham and previous top seed Brunswick.

The Bangor teams had just warmed up for Monday’s practice when they got the news that their season was over.

“Nobody was surprised, but disappointed for sure,” Huber said.

Huber described his team’s long-distance run from the coronavirus’ onset last March to Monday’s abrupt finish line as an eight-month anxiety ride.

“Back in September we would have been happy just to have one meet or two meets,” he added. “It’s only now that we look back and think, ‘Boy, I wish we had more.’

“I think we just need to be grateful for what we got because there are a lot of kids that didn’t get the sports they wanted or didn’t get to participate at the level we got to. We’re lucky.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...