Editor’s note: The Maine high school cross country state championship races, which were supposed to be held this week, have been canceled, so the Sun Journal will be recognizing area runners who qualified over the next few days.
Qualifying for the Class B cross country state championship meet has become an every-year occurrence for Poland junior Jake Twigg, and this year was no different.
Until it was different.
Everything about this year, since March, has been different.
Twigg did once again qualify for the state meet, marking the third year in a row that he has done so. But then the state meets were canceled earlier this week, becoming the latest sports event to be called off because of COVID-19.
Although he’s grown as a runner throughout his career, this season the accomplishment of qualifying for states was bigger, the task more difficult.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, and to fit within gathering limits mandated by the state, the field for the state championships was going to be much smaller.
“Qualifying this year felt kind of unreal. Just because of the fact that only two individuals (from non-qualifying teams) could qualify, and I knew I had to be one of them,” Twigg said. “And when I found out I qualified, I was just in shock because I knew only an extremely small number of runners could qualify. So it felt kind of magical.”
Twigg finished sixth in the Western Maine Conference Class B boys championship race, which was also a qualifier for states. More importantly, he was the second-highest finisher from a team that didn’t qualify for the state meet.
“I knew that I was seeded in a position where I could qualify, it was just a question of would I qualify,” Twigg said. “When I was at the line, though, I was hyping myself up in my head and so many thoughts were running through my mind, like, ‘You have to do this, everything depends on this race. You got this you got this. Just run hard.’”
Twigg said he knew he would have to push himself harder than he ever had before, and he did. His time of 17 minutes, 18.65 seconds was his best of the season and only a little off his personal record of 17:18.50 from last year.
Poland coach Sean Galipeau-Eldridge said the qualifying process for states was intimidating, and that there was no room for an off-day for Twigg.
“It is a tremendous accomplishment,” Galipeau-Eldridge said. “Only allowing two athletes to qualify as individuals was an unprecedented challenge. Add to that, the Western Maine Conference is historically one of the most competitive conferences in our sport. For Jake to step up in that way is representative of his drive and how he always steps up when adversity is most intense.”
Making matters more difficult for Twigg was that the Knights only had three meets leading up to the WMC championship, so there were less opportunities for Twigg to get into peak competition condition.
Luckily, he had some competition during practice in fellow junior Domenic Antonelli.
“Jake and Dom are like two wings on an airplane,” Galipeau-Eldridge said. “They stabilize each other, lift each other to reach new heights, and they really fly. They are the best of friends and have the same determined mindset. Their growth has been tremendous, and a large part of that comes from how they push each other, day in and day out.”
Twigg said Antonelli is key to his success.
“Having Domenic by my side in every race, training with me, pushing me harder and harder every day to do better, it’s just amazing. Domenic is truly the best person to have by my side,” Twigg said. “When we race, I think our friendship kind of gets put on the back burner, though, and then it’s, ‘OK, I’m gonna work with you so we can pass this guy, and get a good finishing time, but if one of us falls behind, just leave the other one behind because, dude, I love you, but if I can win this race I’m gonna win this race.’
“But Domenic has helped me progress so much, and if I didn’t have him running with me every day, and pushing me every step of the way, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. I truly couldn’t ask for a better friend.”
In a normal year, Antonelli would have also qualified for states. His ninth-place finish at the WMC championship — he came in less than 18 seconds after Twigg — would have easily been good enough to make it had the usual top 30 qualified. Instead, Antonelli was the top individual to not earn a state berth.
Just like last year, when he placed 31st at the Class B South regional meet.
“Oh, man, When I found out Domenic didn’t qualify this year, I was heartbroken. Not just because he’s my friend, but because I know how much he’s worked and progressed to get where he’s at today, and then come to find out he missed qualifying for states by one person for the second year in a row, I mean there are no words to describe it. It just sucks. A whole bunch,” Twigg said. “I was in a kind of denial state myself for a couple of days. I kept hoping that he got a call or something from the coach saying there was an error with the timing or placement or something, and that he could actually go. But that never happened, sadly.”
A second wave of denial hit Twigg on Monday, just two days before the state championship, when it was announced that the state meet had been canceled.
“I didn’t want to believe it, or for it to be true,” Twigg said. “It felt like what I had worked so hard to achieve had been just ripped away from me like it was nothing. Because it’s not like states is just another race. No, states are magical.
“And to have that feeling just taken away from you, it’s truly heartbreaking.”
“While the decision was made with the safety of our athletes and our state in mind, it is no less disappointing,” Galipeau-Eldridge said Monday. “Tomorrow starts our first look at the 2021 cross country season, because we have unfinished business.”