In the fall of 2002, approximately 410 high school runners — 241 boys and 169 girls — crossed the finish line at the inaugural Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions.

Saturday’s 16th edition of the event is expected to showcase its largest field yet, with 1,100 boys and 900 girls from 86 schools set to converge on Belfast for what has become arguably the largest competitive sporting event in the state, and one of New England’s largest cross-country invitationals.

While meet director and Brewer High School coach Glendon Rand isn’t surprised at those numbers, the fact that November’s New England Championships are to be run on the same 3.1-mile course at Troy Howard Middle School forced race officials to expand the field a bit.

“We’ve normally had seven or eight out-of-state schools and we’ve expanded to 15 to allow other out-of-state schools to come and see the course,” Rand said.

That has also forced race officials to add an additional boys unseeded race, so that means a full day of seven races kicks off at 10:30 a.m.

The field features girls and boys races in freshman, unseeded seeded divisions.

The seeded races will cap the day’s action and are scheduled for 2:15 p.m. (girls) and 2:50 p.m. (boys). The freshmen races will follow the unseeded races.

Racing begins at 10:30 a.m. with the unseeded boys, Section A, at 10:30 a.m. and the unseeded girls at 11:15 a.m. They’ll be followed by the unseeded boys, Section B, at noon, the girls freshmen (12:45 p.m.) and the boys freshmen (1:30 p.m.).

The out-of-state field includes the contingent from Cumberland, Rhode Island, which has participated in the meet since its inception. Every New England state will be represented in the meet, which will also feature teams from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Approximately 65 Maine high school teams will also participate in the meet, which has been co-hosted by Brewer and Belfast high schools since the beginning.

Runners can expect a few changes to one of Maine’s most fan-friendly and popular cross-country courses. It features almost everything a runner can expect: A championship-level 5-kilometer layout with flat stretches, open fields and challenging hills.

“[Race officials] made the first turn a lot wider and the path to the woods wider so I think it’ll be safer and less congested,” Rand said. “We’re just trying to be proactive and make things go a little bit smoother.”

The race also serves as an important measuring stick for Maine coaches, as it signifies the unofficial midpoint of the regular season. It gives teams a taste of big-meet competition — the likes of which they would have to cross state lines to find in the past — in preparation for the championship season that gets underway in mid-October.

“There was a big desire from Maine schools to run in a big invitational, although there were some small invitationals [in the past] in-state, to get to a big one they had to go to Manchester, New Hampshire, or Ocean State [Invitational] in Rhode Island,” Rand said.

Over the years, the return of the Cumberland, Rhode Island, contingent has helped boost the other out-of-state entries.

“It’s on the radar of teams from Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island as well as the Canadian Maritimes,” Rand said. “That makes people sit up and take notice when it’s not just maine schools.”

As for this year’s field, some fast times can be expected with the combination of a talented group of high school runners and weather conditions expected to be in the 60’s after teams trained in heat and humidity most of this week.

A new girls individual champion will be crowned with 2016 champ Tia Tardy now running at Bucknell University.

Among the favorites in the deep girls field are Sofie Matson of Falmouth, a freshman who will compete in the seeded race, Anneka Murrin of Yarmouth, Carolyn Todd of Greely of Cumberland Center, Sophia Laukli of Yarmouth, Kathryn Miller of York and Ami Beaumier of Bonny Eagle of Standish.

Camden Hills sophomore Grace Iltis is the lone local runner seeded among the top 10.

As for the boys, defending champion Luke Laverdiere, a Yarmouth senior, is back to defend his crown and is the favorite again.

Two local standouts, Hampden Academy junior Wyatt Lord and Bangor junior Gabe Coffey, are among those looking to have a shot at unseating Laverdiere.

Ryan McLaughlin

BDN sports reporter Ryan McLaughlin grew up in Brewer and is a lifelong fan of the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins. In "The Boston Blitz" he'll be sharing his perspective...