Three days before the NHIAA cross country state championships, the Keene High School girls cross country team got news that they would not be competing in the end-of-year event.
It wasn’t a surprise, per se, because many of the other Keene sports teams had already had their playoff appearances canceled, so the team already knew the cancelation of their postseason was a possibility.
“I think we had been assuming that it was going to get canceled,” said senior Amelia Opsahl, one of Keene’s top runners this fall. “Our coach was trying to keep us really positive.”
Despite the assumption that the team wasn’t going to have the opportunity to compete, the girls stayed in shape — mentally, physically and emotionally — just in case they were allowed to run.
One down side to that? It left everyone emotionally vulnerable when the season ended prematurely.
“I told my team that we had to risk disappointment,” said Keene head coach Bill Derry. “You can’t be prepared for the end of the season unless you expect to compete, so you have to emotionally put yourself out there.
“So when (the news) comes, it comes as a disappointment and somewhat of a shock, because mentally and emotionally you’re gearing up for what you know demands your attention and energy,” he added.
But, at the same time, because the cross country teams were the last to have their postseason canceled, the runners had the opportunity to prepare for the news as best they could.
“We were definitely in the mindset that if we were able to go, we’d be ready,” Opsahl said. “I think everyone was also ready for the news that it was going to be canceled. We knew the rules and we knew that it went against the rules.”
The sudden end to the season does not take away from the many highlights that came out of the unusual fall. The team competed against only local teams this year, which meant no Division I competition andno large invitationals, but their top three runners, Opsahl, junior Hannah Shepard and sophomore Regan Hoy, shined on the course.
“I told the girls, in 25 years I never had a team in which I didn’t know among three different kids who was going to win the meet,” Derry said. “That had never happened before. It was a lot of fun.”
With two of his three top runners returning next year, Derry said he’s excited for what’s to come for the program.
“Watching Hannah emerge as one of the best runners in the state of New Hampshire this fall and growing confidence and winning multiple races was a lot of fun,” Derry said. “I’m pretty confident she would’ve been in the top few in the last two meets.
“Reagan had a great breakout season for herself,” Derry added. “She’s going to be a very strong runner for us in the next couple of years. That was another thing that was very fun to watch.”
Hanover High School was also on Keene’s schedule this season, as they were deemed a safe school to compete against. Hanover and Keene raced four times in the fall, with Keene coming out on top three of the four races.
On Saturday, Hanover won the Meet of Champions, the race where the top teams from all divisions across the state come together to compete. So that raises the obvious question: What would’ve happened if Keene had competed?
“That was bittersweet, knowing that we could’ve been perhaps the best team in New Hampshire if we had been allowed to compete,” Derry said. “It was difficult to learn that, but that’s the nature of where we are right now.”
Through all the disappointment, there’s also a sense of understanding about the decision.
“I understand that people are making decisions to keep us safe, so I support that,” Derry said. “It doesn’t make it any easier, however.”
And, of course, a feeling of gratitude that the team could compete at all this season— something that not all fall sports teams can say.
“We were all grateful to have a season,” Derry said. “So many people didn’t have any sports season this fall, so we felt fortunate to have what we had.We enjoyed the time we had together, the good weather and the camaraderie.”
That sentiment was echoed by the team.
“I really enjoyed the season because everyone had a really positive attitude throughout the entire thing,” Opsahl said. “Everyone was just happy to be together and running again.
“(The season) got cut short, which was disappointing, but I was just happy to run with the team again,” she added.
In the most unusual of seasons, the Keene girls cross country team dealt with the adversity and are now focused on the future. Led by young runners in Shepard and Hoy, the Blackbirds are in position to repeat their success next year — hopefully until the end this time.