READFIELD — Maranacook cross country coach Jay Nutting tries not to think about last year. And he tries to keep his team from thinking about it too.

“As I’ve tried to remind them, it’s a new year,” he said. “Different runners, different teams altogether.”

He also is aware of the fact that that can be a losing battle.

“Yes, it’s on their minds,” he said. “We don’t talk about it a whole lot, but I know for some, especially those that like to look at the stats and the races and follow the races through the season, it is on their minds.”

When last year means what it means for the Black Bears, a memory wipe can be easier said than done. Maranacook came within a point of the Class C title — its first state running championship since 1993 — when it finished behind Orono by a single point, 72-71. Now the Black Bears are back, fresh off another Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B championship, and the runners acknowledged that thoughts of 2017 have helped lead the way to more success in 2018.

“I think it’s kind of fueled our fire a little bit,” senior Madelyn Dwyer said. “We were just talking about, last week, how we want to work so much harder. We only lost by one point. So we just want to come back and show them we can do this.”

That’s not to say that the Black Bears, who won the KVAC title by 26 points last week and will compete in the C South regional meet in Cumberland on Saturday, are looking at this season as a carbon copy of last year. As junior Molly McGrail put it, this Maranacook team has its own identity.

“It feels like a completely new year,” she said. “New people, new captains, new approaches.”

And there were new challenges. Laura Parent and Maddie Taylor graduated, leaving the Black Bears without their No. 2 and 3 runners. But they still had McGrail, the top runner a year ago, who’s thrived this season. She was first among Class B runners at the KVAC race last week and second overall, finishing behind only Class A champion Jillian Richardson of Edward Little.

“When she’s out on the course, her game face is on,” Nutting said. “She does take it very seriously. She’s the team’s physical leader, I think the team knows that, and she realizes that and appreciates that. We try not to put too much pressure on her in that role, but she knows what she can do out there and she’s tough. She handles it very well.”

As the season got going, the rest of the pieces fell into place as well. Sophomore Sophie O’Clair, who came on strong with an 11th-place showing at the Class C state meet, made strides in her second season, which she turned into a second-place finish at KVACs.

“I had no clue that I came in second at the KVACs. … That was definitely a surprise,” O’Clair said. “I haven’t done as well time-wise as I did last year, but generally I start to pick it up with more pressure.”

Even beyond the top two, depth became an asset for the Black Bears. Junior Dana Reynolds and senior Dwyer, fifth and 11th, respectively, at KVACs, stepped into bigger roles. Senior Lily Welch, junior Maura Taylor and freshman Jenna Badeau rounded out a strong supporting cast.

As the year progressed, it was as if the Black Bears never skipped a beat.

“We knew we were only missing two runners, we knew we had a couple of good freshmen coming up,” Dwyer said. “I knew we were going to get somewhere this season.”

“We had some rebuilding to do,” Nutting said. “They’ve just really stepped up to take the sports of the seniors that we lost. … They take every workout seriously and just gritty, really hard-nosed, mentally tough runners, and it’s showing here through the end of the season.”

Maranacook’s top four at KVACs were separated by just over three minutes, and that close pack time has allowed the runners to push each other over the course of the season.

“We all are fairly close,” Dwyer said. “We’re constantly running together and doing our workouts together, so we’re getting better as a team with the people we’ll be running with.”

Can it mean another regional title, and maybe that elusive state title? Nutting’s not about to draw up a forecast.

“I’m not looking at that, I know a lot of coaches do,” he said. “I don’t like to get caught up in all the numbers and the seeds and trying to predict things ahead of time, because this is cross country and anything can happen to any runner.”

Regardless, his runners will be ready to give it their best shot.

“We know that we don’t have to do anything else after this,” Reynolds said. “There’s nothing to worry about. If we hurt ourselves, it’s OK. Everything is on the table.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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