R.J. Jenkins wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

The Kents Hill cross country coach had a girls team full of athletes from other sports, who were looking to stay in shape through the fall season.

But after some early season success — and a late addition of a soccer player who finished as the team’s top runner — the Huskies were all in. By the end of the season, Kents Hill walked away with both the MAISAD and New England Prep School Track Association Division IV titles.

Not only did the Huskies walk away with the NEPSTA title, but they did so in true team fashion. There was only a difference of 2:29 between the top runner, Cara Hudson (22:19) and its No. 7 finisher, Maggie Gray (24:48).

“From our top seven (runners), five of them were brand new,” Jenkins said. “I did think coming in, looking at them initially, that we had a lot of potential, but I didn’t know for sure how exactly we were going to be until we hit some races. Our top runner wasn’t even on the team until three weeks in.”

That would be Hudson — a sophomore from South Africa — who was a late-minute addition to the team. Hudson decided to turn in her soccer cleats for running shoes.

“I know she hadn’t run cross country before, but she was in great shape,” Jenkins said. “She just decided that soccer wasn’t working out for her and decided to run cross country. I think her first day of practice was the day before a race, so she didn’t race that weekend. But the following weekend we raced in Belfast at the Festival of Champions and she did really, really well. That’s when we knew we had something with her.”

The season turned out well for Hudson.

“She showed up and realized she could race,” Jenkins said. “She made us have a (top group of five runners) that was pretty formidable.”

She was far from the only productive runner for the Huskies. Senior Kate McKee was the top runner for Kents Hill at the MAISAD championships at Kents Hill, finishing second in 22:17. Jenkins said McKee was also the leader of the Huskies, both on and off the course.

“Kate’s definitely our leader, she’s was our captain last year and this year,” Jenkins said. “She was a member of the two other New England championship teams (in 2014 and 2015) as a younger runner, and sort of learned from those girls what it took (to succeed). As a junior, and coming into her senior year, she’s just been the consummate runner all along and has loved it. She’s devoted a lot of time and effort, summers, into fitness. She was definitely our leader, the lone girls captain. She — along with the coaches — was really preaching ‘Hey, we have a shot here’ as the season came along.”

Jenkins also credited the rest of the top seven runners — Lauren Murray, Jilly Jackson, Karina Laxton, Ellie Saucier and Gray — with showing drastic improvement throughout the season. Murray was the No. 2 runner for the Huskies at the NEPSTA meet, finishing in 22:32.

“(Murray) had never run cross country ever,” Jenkins said. “She’s a basketball player by trade, that’s her No. 1 sport. But she wanted to stay in shape. But the thing that I learned about Lauren in the very first race is that she doesn’t like to lose. She’s super competitive — whether she’s running or playing hoops — she doesn’t want to lose; she wants to try to win. I could tell right from the start that she was going to be great for us, because she doesn’t back down.”

Jackson — a freshman — finished the New England meet as the Huskies’ No. 3 runner with a time of 22:47.

“You never know what’s going to happen when a freshman comes in,” Jenkins said. “She had run before, so I was optimistic, but I didn’t realize just how good she was. She had some injuries early in the season that held her back a little bit, but the last three or four races, she got healthy and she really stepped up.”

Different runners, from different backgrounds, adding a little bit of overachieving to deliver a championship season.

“Sometimes kids just do cross country to get in shape for their sport,” Jenkins said. “I think we had some kids on this team that maybe set out at the start to use it as that. But then they bought into ‘wow, this is fun, I’m pretty good at it, we have a good team, why don’t we just go for it?’ I kind of had a collection of some runners and some athletes from other sports that were doing running as a side sport. By the end of the year, I felt like I had a cross country team. They were all completely invested, involved, totally bought in and enjoyed it and enjoyed each other.”

Dave Dyer — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer

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