AUGUSTA — Shawn Totman wore a mask, but the Cony cross country coach’s spirit came through loud and clear.

“We’ve been through so much, for months now,” he said. “Starting practice was a big hurdle, and that felt amazing. … But this is just different. Having an actual meet, there’s like an energy.”

Cony normally gets to host the first area meet of the year, and it did so again Friday afternoon. But instead of the Laliberte Invitional, which draws around 20 teams and hundreds of runners, Cony’s kick-off race was a three-team meet with Erskine and Nokomis, with scattered fans instead of throngs of spectators.

But it was still a meet. And for the teams there, that was the important thing.

“To have this race as a first race, I think it’s a close second,” Totman said. “It’s a small meet, but you can tell there’s an energy to it. You can tell the kids are really excited.”

The runners said the race was a semblance of normal in a season that’s been so unusual.

“I just love running through the woods, and I was so disappointed in thinking it would be really hard for sports, and I didn’t know if that was going to happen,” said Erskine’s Austin Young, who won the boys race at 19:21.57. “I’m super excited for it.”

“I didn’t think there was going to be a season, until my dad was telling me definitely that there was going to be (one),” said Nokomis junior Ashley Frederick, a third-place finisher in the girls race. “And when I heard them say there was a meet this Friday, that’s when I started to (think) ‘OK, I’m really nervous, I need to get down and do this.’ ”

In many ways, it was the same old thing. With only three teams, runners could start all at once in both races. There was no need to change up traffic on the track to keep kids apart. It was just running, like usual.

“Being able to have three teams here and have what felt like a pretty normal race was a blessing,” Young said. “I’m glad we were able to have it.”

Runners line up at the start of the season-opening meet Friday at Cony in Augusta. One of the changes this year because of coronavirus is that runners line up at numbered spots that are 3 1/2 feet apart instead standing closer together. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

There were differences, though. The cowbells and cheers that would normally be greeting runners at each turn or with each pass were fewer and farther between.

“Last year, there would be just a chute of people right here, going into the finish line,” said Erskine sophomore Nick Choate, who was third in the boys race.

The scene at the end of the finish line, normally one of congratulations and camaraderie, was a COVID casualty as well.

“The distancing and everything is definitely weird,” said Cony junior Grace Kirk, who won the girls race at 23:26.03. “The first thing I want to do after a race is hug everybody. But we can’t do that. I can’t even high-five my teammates. It’s really hard.”

It was, however, still competition. And for runners who just wanted a season, that was enough.

“It was awesome,” Kirk said. “It felt good to finally get out and run. It’s been forever.”

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