Confession time. I took the hook.
When the announcement came out that cross country championships would be held in November, I talked to runners and coaches on the phone and in person about how excited they were by the news. I know it’s been a weird fall, I said. But you have championships now. Something to aim for. Isn’t that great?
I should have known better. I should have known that the coronavirus that wiped out the spring and compromised the fall had another haymaker left.
Saturday would have been the final day of the cross country championships in Bangor, but more concerning numbers in COVID-19’s spread and worrisome trends in counties forced the Maine Principals’ Association to cancel the event, leaving a slew of talented runners stunned and staggered and wondering the same question.
What the heck happened?
“I was really shocked,” said Cony junior Grace Kirk, who had qualified for the Class A meet individually. “For me, it was just crushing.”
They weren’t the only ones to ask that question. Football players and many volleyball players wondered that when their seasons were pushed back to the spring, ruling out the chance of playing in the fall. Soccer and field hockey players wondered that when they found out there weren’t going to be playoffs in their sports. Even golfers, who did get state championships, wondered it while coming to grips with the fact that their season was going to last only a couple of weeks.
This time, it was cross country’s turn, as a virus that has taken and taken and taken proved it wasn’t done stealing chances at glory from student-athletes who deserved them.
“I thought that, since we made it through last week and it was so close, I thought we were going to have it,” Kirk said. “Everything was going to be fine.”
I didn’t think we’d be in this position again when COVID slammed into the country in March and forced the cancellation of the spring season. I thought those athletes would be the only ones to deal with such weird, unexpected, unfortunate circumstances.
Wrong again. Fall athletes, too, were caught in the middle of uncertainty and instability.
“I think at the beginning it was kind of hard, when we didn’t know at all if we were going to get to play,” said Kassidy Collins, a senior goalie on the Gardiner field hockey team. “We were all looking at each other like ‘OK, are we doing this for nothing?’ ”
There’s no one to blame. The MPA managed to give most of the athletes this fall a season. But whenever it would try for some sort of consistency, COVID would take it away. Teams had games canceled, practices called off. Whole schools were shut down for weeks. Players who talked on Friday about how they were happy just to be playing found out Monday that they weren’t anymore.
“The hardest part was just the mental game. Everything on and off, canceling, things being back on,” said Eric Vining, a junior striker on the Maranacook boys soccer team. “Every time it happens over and over again, at some point you just want it to be over, whether it’s a canceled season or keep playing. Give us a season or cancel it, pick one. It’s just so tough on you mentally, on all these teenagers who are trying to play.”
It’s easy to understand the frustration of playing a season while waiting for the ax to fall.
“The whole season, I was just kind of on edge,” Kirk said. “Every week, it was ‘Will this race actually happen? Is it not going to happen?’ … It was constantly thinking ‘OK, this probably isn’t going to happen, but I have to stay motivated because it might.’ ”
Coaches at games I covered preferred to talk about their players’ mental toughness more than their physical performance that afternoon. They marveled at those athletes’ ability to keep their spirits high and make the best of a difficult situation. And for good reason. Fall athletes had to make it through one change of plans after another, and weather one setback, and then a second, and then a third.
High school athletes have enough to deal with. The schedule should be a given.
“There were just so many days that (athletic director) Jon (Christopher) would plan things for us, and it would fall through,” said Skowhegan field hockey coach Paula Doughty, whose team had to stop playing twice. “Every time it happens, it’s like ‘Boom,’ right in the gut.”
One of the players who kept spirits high at Skowhegan was Hannah McKenney, the team’s senior midfielder. Designated a captain before the season, she made sure she carried out those responsibilities.
“When we did get a season, I was just thankful for every second that we got,” she said. “All the memories that were made, I’ll cherish and take with me forever.”
It wasn’t easy, though. This fall, it wasn’t easy for anyone.
“It still took a hit, every time,” McKenney said. “It was like ‘Oh, that was our last game, and we didn’t even realize it.’ “