WATERVILLE — For the first time in a long time, the Colby College men’s cross country team enters the season ranked in the top 10 in New England. The Mules are ranked ninth in the region, which is overflowing with talented Division III cross country teams.

At a lot of schools, a regional ranking that high would cause runners to hit the trails as the favorite to win a conference title. But for the Mules to do that, they’ll have to leapfrog over seven other New England Small College Athletic Conference teams, including rivals Bowdoin and Bates.

“We’re in one of the top conferences in the country. It’s great we have competition every weekend,” senior Matt White said, “but we could be in the top three anywhere else.”

Eight of the top nine men’s cross country teams in the top 10 of the preseason’s coaches poll compete in the NESCAC. The Mules open the season Saturday in New Gloucester at a meet hosted by Bates, the preseason No. 2 team in the region. Colby hosts the Maine state meet on Oct. 19. The New England championship is Nov. 16 in Gorham.

Last season, the Mules finished ninth at the conference championships in Brunswick, their best finish since 2003.

“It’s a blessing and a curse. Being in the NESCAC, by sheer reputation, helps us. Running against NESCAC schools, you know where you stand,” Colby men’s cross country coach Jared Beers said.

Right now, Colby stands among the best. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a long process, said Beers, now in his seventh season as the team’s coach.

“We’ve gotten a little better every year,” Beers said.

Two years ago, the Mules finished 14th at the New England championships. Last season, Colby was 12th.

“The team has definitely gotten a lot deeper. We’ve never had a team this good without an elite runner. We’re just solid from top to bottom,” White said.

Beers points to a strong junior class, which includes Waterville’s Jeff Hale, along with Charlie Coffman, Ben Lester and Will McCarthy. The four juniors bonded quickly, Beers said, and as freshman, made up four of Colby’s top seven finishers at the New England meet. Hale, who placed 40th in the conference meet last season, could be the team’s top runner this year.

“Jeff was a gift. I never recruited him. I never talked to him,” Beers said. “He’s just been the steadiest trainer on the team.”

By the time Beers started recruiting Hale, the coach didn’t need his most polished sales pitch. Hale, who was 1,600- and 3,200-meter state champion as a senior at Waterville, had already sent in his deposit, and was committed to Colby’s Class of 2015.

“Obviously, things are working out,” Hale said.

Last spring, as the semester ended, the team got together to plan summer training. The Mules knew their potential, and knew the work that would be needed to realize it. The team kept an online running log, where each member could catalogue his offseason workouts. At midsummer, the team got together in Rhode Island to train.

“It kept everyone accountable,” Hale said.

Running in the toughest conference in the region, the Mules will find out soon enough if that accountability was enough.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

tlazarczyk@centralmaine.com