For the first time in her 19 years as head coach, Kelley Cullenberg’s Mt. Blue boys cross country team failed to qualify for the state meet last fall. Don’t expect a repeat performance this season.

The boys are strong this fall and if they develop a consistent fifth runner, they will be among the top tier of teams in Eastern Maine Class A. Last week, in a seven-team meet at Leavitt, the Cougars swept the top four places en route to a convincing win.

“They did a lot of work over the summer,” Cullenberg said. “I knew the potential was there.”

Senior Justin Tracy finished first, followed by junior Josh Horne, senior Sully Jackson and sophomore Dan Lesko. The pack was separated by 1 minute, 4 seconds. Felix Bonnevie and Brendan Hickey finished 14th and 15th overall, a little over a minute behind Lesko.

“If we can get the fifth guy closer to the fourth guy, we should do quite nicely,” Cullenberg said.

The Cougars return four of their top runners but did lose three of their top 10 for various reasons and their sixth, seventh and eighth runners are all new.

“They were a bubble team the whole season,” Cullenberg said of last fall. “Obviously, they have set their goals pretty high, not only as a team but individually.”

The Cougars face Mt. Ararat, Morse and Brunswick in a meet Thursday in Brunswick. So far, their top four runners have finished in the top 10 in each meet.

“That will be a good test,” Cullenberg said. “We haven’t seen Mt. Ararat yet.”

* * *

The Waterville girls finished second in a meet at Messalonskee last Friday but those results were deceiving.

“We were missing about half our girls for various reasons,” coach Rob Stanton said.

Among the missing was senior Bethanie Brown, arguably the top runner in the state. Brown finished second in the Class B state meet last fall, but moved to a different level in the indoor and outdoor track seasons, winning New England titles in the 1,600 and 3,200 meter runs during the outdoor season.

“She went to another level and has remained there,” Stanton said. “She’s substantially better this year than she was last year.”

In the two meets in which she’s competed, Brown has won handily and set course records in both. She has a strong team around her, too. Freshman Erica Jensen has finished between second and fourth in her meets and helped push returning seniors Lara Bluhm and Tiana Thompson. Alexa Frame and Lauren Brown, Bethanie’s younger sister, have also run well.

“I think we’ve got six solid runners,” Stanton said. “It’s just a matter of getting them on the course at the same time.” The Purple Panthers face a major test Friday at a meet at Cony High School. In addition to several Class A teams, defending Class B Eastern Regional champion Camden Hills will be there. They’re led by Brittany Bowman, who edged Brown out for individual honors in the Class B state meet last fall.

“I think Camden Hills is going to be a handful,” Stanton said.

* * *

The Erskine boys team is off to a promising start, thanks to a couple of returning veterans and two newcomers. Erskine edged Lincoln by two points in a seven-team meet at Medomak Valley last week. Junior Erik Dodge and Ethan Bronson finished third and fourth for the Eagles.

“Dodge and Bronson will both go to the states, no doubt,” Erskine coach Scott Minzy said.

Sophomore Camrin Portela placed 17th for the Eagles in a vast improvement of his times and finishes last season.

“He grew a foot,” Minzy said. “His times weren’t that good last year.”

The two wild cards on the team are identical senior twins Robert and Stephen Soohey, who are running cross country for the first time. Both are members of the wrestling team.

“I’ve been riding them (to run) for the last two years,” Minzy said. “Last year the captain of the wrestling team ran cross country and came into wrestling in real good shape. I think that says a lot.”

Robert finished 12th in the meet at Medomak while Stephen placed 18th.

“It was Stephen that won it for us,” Minzy said. “He passed a Lincoln Academy kid who had beaten all year. He had a great race.”

Qualifying for the state meet as a team will be a daunting task since they bounced up to Class A last year despite a small enrollment.

“It’s tough to compete against schools that have twice our enrollment,” Minzy said.

* * *

The 2012 Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions will be held Sept. 29 at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast. This year’s field is the largest ever with 68 confirmed schools from Maine entered and another six from out of state.

“That will be a good mid-season checkpoint to see where everybody is,” Waterville coach Rob Stanton said.

Last year’s individual champions, Abbey Leonardi of Kennebunk and Matt McClintock of Madison have moved on to Division I collegiate careers, Leonardi at the University of Oregon and McClintock to Purdue.

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638

[email protected]

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