Festival of champions benchmark during season

Cross country runners from all over the state will converge in Belfast on Saturday for the annual Festival of Champions.

With a few races under each team’s belt, the event is often used by coaches and runners as a measuring stick to gauge where teams and individuals stand, and whether strategy needs to be changed for the rest of the season.

“The kids are always just really excited for (Festival of Champions), because then that’s how they gauge (how they are doing),” Messalonskee head coach Vanessa Holman said. “How they do at Festival is how they might do at (the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championships), regionals, states, etc., just because everyone is here. It’s the course that’s at least run for regionals, and states every other year. There’s a high caliber (of competition) I think, and the kids view it as how well they can do together, and as a team. It’s a starting point for what they’ll have to work on.”

The course located at the Troy Howard Middle School, is noted as fairly flat and fast for runners. This will be a welcome change for some teams, like Maranacook, who have spent the first few races on hilly courses.

“I think it can be said that all four of our regular season meets have been run so far on really tough courses,” Maranacook head coach Jay Nutting said. “I think that’s only going to help us as we go into October. We’ve had some doozies. Our first regular meet was our home course, and I said ‘Look guys, if we can make it through this, you’re not going to run into anything more tough than this course.’ Than we go up to Quarry Road, and I ate my words. Then, we go to Leavitt — and I went to Leavitt, I know the course very well — but they have a new course there this year, and he changed (the course) up so they have a decent hill. We ended up going up that hill three times.”

There is guaranteed to be a new boys champion in the race Saturday. Last year’s champion, Luke Laverdiere of Yarmouth, has graduated. But Falmouth’s Sofie Matson returns as the defending girls champion. Only a sophomore, Matson took the crown as a freshman last season with a time of 18:17.33. That time was nearly 19 seconds faster than second-place finisher Sophia Laukli of Yarmouth.

• • •

As expected, Maranacook has paced itself right along over the first few races of the season, showing top runners for both the boys and the girls teams.

The boys are led by senior and veteran runner Luke Bartol, who finished sixth in the KVAC B championship race last season. He’s picked right up from where he finished last season. In five races this season, Bartol has four top-five finishes, and finished first in a KVAC race August 31 at his home course in Readfield.

“I’ve seen a tremendous dedication to the sport,” Nutting said. “Luke is a senior this year, he’s the returning (Kennebec Journal) Runner of the Year. He knows what he’s doing and he knows what he needs to do to be successful. That’s what I’ve seen from him so far, doing what he needs to do to be successful. To stay injury-free, and just roll along like he’s capable of doing.”

The Maranacook girls have been led by junior Molly McGrail, who continues the momentum that began last spring during outdoor track and field season. So far this fall, McGrail has had top-five finishes in all five of her races, and like Bartol, finished first at her home course back on August 31. She also has two second-place finishes.

“Molly had a very successful track season last year, being one of the best quarter runners in the state,” Nutting said. “She went to New Englands. I think that just extended her season longer, so there’s no shortage of speed there. I think what we continue to work on is just building that endurance to shift her over to a 5K race versus a 400 or 800 (meter) track.”

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The Messalonskee girls have been led by not one, but two successful runners in senior Peyton Arbour and sophomore Charlotte Wentworth.

“They’ve just been working really hard,” Holman said. “Peyton and Charlotte have just been working out really well together at practice and then just working together at the races. They’ve just been doing so well.”

The duo are extremely competitive runners. Not just with fellow KVAC runners, but with each other, as Holman can attest.

“At practice, they just challenge each other,” Holman said. “They’re always paired together, usually with some of the boys, actually, but they always workout together. They will just use each other for whatever they’re doing and just keep pushing it. One will always be leading the other. If one is having a bad day, the other one is pulling them through. I see that moreso at the meets as well. They work through that first mile, and by the third mile, it’s who is pulling the other one through. It’s been fun to watch.”

Wentworth has had the edge in the personal rivalry — she’s had top-five finishes in four KVAC races this season — but both have had top-five finishes in two races this year. Their best effort of the season so far may have been in their latest race. Wentworth finished second and Arbour third in a race September 20 at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle.

On the boys side, Holman has been impressed with the improvement of Elijah Ross throughout the season.

“He’s matured a lot,” Holman said. “He just had a really good summer of training. He mountain bikes and does a lot of other activities, so he was working really hard coming into the season and has a lot of goals that he wants to break. He’s been driving to do that, and he goes above and beyond to get there.”

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Mt. Blue junior Kahryn Cullenberg is taking no prisoners on the course this season.

In three KVAC races this season, Cullenberg has two victories, picking up wins on August 31 on her home course in Farmington, as well as a win September 20 at Lincoln Academy.

She placed second in a September 14 race at Leavitt High School in Turner, behind Edward Little’s Jillian Richardson.

Dave Dyer — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer

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