Tom Mendendez knows the key to getting the most out of his Monmouth Academy girls track and field team. All the Mustangs coach needs is a few words.

“Every so often when they get a little cocky, I just say ‘You know, I remember your sophomore year,'” he said. “And that sort of takes that level of cockiness down, and we get back to doing the hard work.”

It’s a sore subject. For Menendez’s seniors, their sophomore year was when the Mountain Valley Conference title slipped away. They won it as freshmen. They won it again as juniors. And they’re driven to make it two in a row, and three in four years, today.

“We won it three years ago by half a point, and then what happened was the kids got overconfident the year after and got blown away,” Mendendez said. “The year where we won it and then we didn’t win it has really left an impression on these kids.”

The Mustangs will be one of three area teams defending conference championships this week. On Saturday, the Messalonskee boys will look for another Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A title, while the Winslow boys will chase another KVAC B title after winning it en route to a state championship last spring.

The three programs have gone in three different directions in their follow-up campaigns. The Monmouth girls look just as balanced, just as deep and just as strong as they did last year, and it’s hard to miss the confident tone in Menendez’s voice when he assesses his team’s odds.

“I think we’ve got a really good chance. I think we lost two scorers from last year’s girls team, so everybody’s back pretty much intact,” he said. “I would say I like the team’s chances if everybody does what they have to do.”

The outlook for victory is hazier for the boys teams. Winslow returns several key contributors from last year’s squad but lost vital pieces as well, and realignment has swelled KVAC B to 18 teams and made it a crapshoot when it comes to predicting results.

“It’s hard to make predictions. I’ve done the numbers, I don’t really want to say too much to get my kids all riled up, but I think we’ll be a contender,” coach Ken Nadeau said. “We have to have a really, really good day, and at this point in the season with 18 teams in KVAC B, it’s going to take two or three or four really good athletes to kind of sway the numbers, then you hope your middle of the road kids … place up and steal some points from other teams.”

Messalonskee was hit hard by graduation, which cost the Eagles 15 athletes and the four responsible for the team’s six event wins at last year’s KVACs. With that much athleticism gone, coach Matt Holman said a repeat Saturday will be unlikely.

“We graduated a lot of horsepower with that conference title team,” he said. “The athletes that we have, they’re very good athletes and I think they’re going to compete very well and they’re going to shine in this meet. But I think a conference title’s going to be tough to come by.”

All three teams have faced pressure. It can be external, with a conference title putting a target on the back of the defending champion, but Holman said it can be internal as well in the form of increased expectations for the athletes to emulate their performances from a season ago.

“These guys had role models coming up through that were exceptional athletes, that had been running fast times. They know what fast times are,” he said. “They have realistic expectations of what they can do, but they also know what others can do with hard work. … I think the drive to perform at a high level carried over from last year.”

“Coach has addressed it. He said ‘So what if we won KVACs and states last year? We’ve still got to push,’ ” Winslow sprinter Jake Warn said. ” ‘Every other team has new athletes, every one else is pushing just as hard.’ We’ve got to come out there just as strong as last year, maybe even stronger.”

Their paths have had to wind through challenges as well, which include injuries, fatigue and physical stress — often inevitable at this time of year, and made more of an obstacle by erratic scheduling due to early wet weather.

“I work really hard to keep my kids on a training schedule, and with a meet every two or three days, I can’t keep my kids healthy long enough,” Nadeau said. “There’s just not enough rest time. We had four meets in less than 12 days. Your body can’t recover. It just can’t.”

Still, all three teams are confident they’ll have strong showings this week. For Winslow, it can mean victory if the team cashes in on its strengths — namely jumps, led by Max Spaulding, and sprints, led by Jake Warn and Ben Dorval.

“I do have some good sprinters in general, I do have some good jumpers in general. In my opinion, my distance runners are super competitive,” Nadeau said. “I think the numbers are there as long as we hit them.”

Firepower won’t be an issue at Monmouth. With Kaitlyn Hunt (distance), Libby Clement (hurdles), Mahala Hayden (discus) and Maddie Amero (javelin) back leading the way after winning MVC titles last year, the Mustangs know they’ll be a favorite today.

“I have a couple of the newer kids that get all excited because it’s a conference meet, they get all nervous,” Menendez said, “but my veterans go out with their hard hats on and their shoes on, ready to do their job, and hopefully we’ll be successful if they do it right.”

His seniors are eager to make it one more memorable afternoon.

“They’re really intent on doing it,” Menendez said. “If they can get three out of four, two in a row, it’s going to be a happy bus ride home.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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