WINSLOW — A group of 11 little boys slapped numbers on their hips, tugged nervously at their shirts and shorts, and gazed out at the track surrounding them with puffed-out chests and false bravado.

All of them standing knee-high to a grasshopper and none of them older than 8-years-old, they were about to run the 400 meters in a meet for the first time. They were part of more than 250 boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 15 competing in a USA Track & Field-Maine Youth Developmental Summer Series meet at Winslow High School on Thursday. Seven area clubs brought athletes to the second of five scheduled meets this summer leading into state qualifying and state championship meets in August.

And there in the middle of the track, those little boys were ready to tackle what is accepted by many as the most demanding event in track and field, the 400 meters.

Young Reeve Garcia of Skowhegan was undeterred.

“I did the 200, the shot put and the high jump last time,” said Garcia, 8, with a wide smile under wraparound sunglasses.

But had he ever run the 400 before?

“Well, not in a meet,” he admitted. “I did it in practice. I was pretty good.”

And with that, Garcia and the rest of the crew were off to the starting line, surrounded by cheering family and friends lining the track, to attempt taming the beast that is the 400.

USATF dictates that meets rotate events from week to week. The summer meets, which take place in a variety of locations, will feature the shorter sprints and some of the throws one week; the next week, the meet will offer long-distance races and some different jumping events. For a program designed to drive interest in track and field from kids, it’s a way to make sure the athletes get to try as many different events as possible.

There are five age groups at each meet, both for boys and girls.

“I like summer track because you can try new stuff,” said Winslow’s Trey Goodwin, 14. “The results here don’t matter as much as they do during the (junior high) season. You can try new things and see what you like.”

Ken Nadeau, the meet coordinator, is the Winslow High School track and field coach and the person in charge of the Winslow summer track program. He believes the summer program has helped his varsity team become a player at the state level during the high school season.

The Black Raider boys claimed the Class B state championship on June 3.

“Track is starting to get pretty big in this area,” Nadeau said. “We’ve got more than 50 kids in our summer program, and one of the reasons our high school team is so successful is because of that.”

When Mark Cooper of Fairfield took over the Winslow summer track program in 2010, there were only five kids on the team the previous summer. It was the byproduct of an organization seeing three different coaches in three years. He’s watched the interest in the sport — and in the summer program, in particular — spike in recent seasons. Almost immediately, the number quadrupled and ballooned to nearly 50 kids by the summer of 2012.

In 2016, Winslow boasted 70 kids in its summer youth program and earned a top-10 finish at the state meet.

“We had 28 kids who aged out last year,” said Cooper, who ran the program for seven years. “They’re a much younger team now, which is what you want. Summer track is for everybody. If a kid has fun, they’re going to bring their friends and then it’s just going to take off.”

As crucial to the program as the young athletes themselves running, jumping and throwing during the course of a nearly four-hour meet each week are the former athletes who turn into volunteers. There were dozens of them Thursday, representing virtually every club in attendance, either serving as coaches to their former programs or running events all across the Winslow High School campus.

One of those athletes was Vincent Scott, a soon-to-be senior at Winthrop who was introduced to track and field in the summer as a sixth-grader. He’s now in his third summer season as a volunteer coach working with Ed Van Tassel, who has been at Winthrop for more than a decade.

“When I was doing summer track, I looked up to the coaches. I wanted to be one of them someday,” said Scott, 16. “It’s so much fun. The kids are awesome, and it’s a great experience. It’s one of the highlights of my summer, actually.”

“Our little kids look up to the high school kids,” Nadeau said. “And this wouldn’t happen without them. These (older) kids are out here working for free, volunteering their time because they care about track and field.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

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Twitter: @TBarrettGWC