BELFAST — A strong performance at the Festival of Champions brings a lot of confidence and prestige with it to the middle of the high school cross country season.

A disappointing performance brings with it a reminder — it is only mid-season.

The largest field in the race’s 13-year history, over 1,700 runners, encountered a light mist at the 5-kilometer Troy Howard Middle School course Saturday. A pair of out-of-state runners thrived in the clammy conditions. Sam Nishi of Harwood Union in South Duxbury, Vt. and Amy Laverty of Cumberland High School in Cumberland, R.I. won the boys and girls races, respectively.

Cumberland won the boys team title for the second time in three years. Cape Elizabeth won the girls team title.

Aaron Willingham of Mt. Blue was the top local runner, finishing in 16:13.12 for sixth. The top seed in the race, Willingham jumped out to a quick lead, then slipped and fell on some slick turf near the one-mile mark.

“It was really tough to keep my footing,” said Willingham, a senior. “I fell and then I wasted all of my energy trying to get back trying to get back up (in front). I was feeling good before that. I wasn’t really that tired.”

“He was still able to run his first mile after falling in 4:44,” Mt. Blue coach Kelley Cullenberg said of Willingham. “But it did take an awful lot to gain back where he was before he fell. To have to work your way back to that point when you have two-plus miles to go is pretty tough.”

Dan Lesko, who was seeded second behind his teammate, finished right behind him (16:15.03) in seventh.

“I think there was definitely some higher-level competition here. I’ve never run up front like that in a pack. I couldn’t stay with it,” Lesko said. “Last year, there was Josef Holt-Andrews (of Telstar), but he just ran away from the pack (and set a meet record of 15:06). This year, there were a lot of people up close together that could really push each other.”

Willingham and Lesko can use Saturday’s race to refocus for the remainder of the season, Cullenberg said.

“What we’re taking out of it is a little less pressure going into other meets,” she said. “There’s been a lot of pressure on Aaron and Dan holding the one and two spot for as long as they have. I think it’s a really good thing to let go of that pressure and just try to relax a little bit and hopefully they can bounce back mentally. I mean, their workouts have been amazing, so we’re not concerned where they are in the physical aspect.”

Nishi, a senior, posted a winning time of 15:50.48, followed by runner-up Sean Laverty, of Cumberland (15:54.10). Jacob Terry, of Scarborough, Mitch Morris, of Cape Elizabeth, and Lewiston’s Isaiah Harris rounded out the top five.

The meet divides runners into seeded, unseeded and freshman races, then combines the times into one meet. Out of 866 boys, Winthrop’s Ben Allen finished 16th. Monmouth’s Luke Thombs was 41st.

Amy Laverty, a junior, won a close girls race in 19:01.02, edging Orono’s Hannah Steelman (19:03.65), Marshwood’s Maddy Doyle (19:04.70) and Brunswick’s Tessa Cassidy (19:05.68).

Anne Guadalupi,of Cony finished ninth (19:24.16). The sophomore, who was the top seed, stayed with the lead group before tiring in the final mile.

“I don’t think today was my day,” she said. “After exiting the woods, I feel like I fell back a bit. I got quite tired there and my legs started feeling heavy. I tried to keep up with them but it felt like they were just slowly getting away. I was expecting myself to pick it up, but I just couldn’t find the energy.”

Anne McKee of Kents Hill finished 18th (19:37.79). It was her first race since winning the preseason Laliberte Invitational because she’s been nursing a hip injury.

“I felt really off today,” she said. “My stride was kind of hindered because I’ve been limping for a while. I’m still kind of recovering now. I’ve been running the past few days, but it’s just not enough. But (the hip is) getting better.”

Out of 693 girls, Hannah Despres of Maranacook finished 28th and Waterville’s Lauren Brown 42nd.

Cape Elizabeth placed five girls in the top 39 to finish with 137 points, followed by Orono (166), Yarmouth (175), Cumberland (175) and Harwood (181). Maranacook was the top local girls team in 20th place.

In the boys standings, Cumberland (135) knocked off Scarborough (144). Falmouth (148), Hampden (239) and Massabesic rounded out the top five. Mt. Blue finished eighth.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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