Runners compete in the seeded boys race at the 2017 Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions in Belfast. Credit: BDN file photo

Sofie Matson of Falmouth High School and girls from a high school cross country team in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, will be among the many interesting runners to watch on Saturday when the 17th Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions is held in Belfast.

The 3.1-mile Troy Howard Middle School course will be inundated with over 1,700 runners representing 65 schools from Maine and nine from out of state.

There were over 2,000 runners from 86 schools last year, but race director Glendon Rand said there is a legitimate reason for the drop-off.

“The New Englands were held here last year so a lot of out-of-state schools came up to check out the course. There were 15 out-of-state teams a year ago,” said Brewer High School cross country and outdoor track coach Glendon Rand, who has been the race director since its inception.

Matson was the big story in 2017 as she ran in the seeded race instead of the freshman race and led from start to finish with a time of 18 minutes, 17.37 seconds. The sophomore is the top seed after posting a time of 18:15.53 in a 3.1-mile race this season.

The girls meet record of 17:56.69 was set by Bethanie Brown of Waterville in 2012.

Among Matson’s primary challengers are Gorham junior Kate Tugman (18:17.99) and her senior teammate Malaika Pasch (18:22.02). Bonny Eagle of Buxton’s Delaney Hesler is the fourth seed at 18:39.0, but she is expected to run in the freshman race.

Colonel Gray High School of P.E.I. appears to be the team to beat with five runners seeded among the top 18 led by sophomores Lila Gaudrault and Sophie Peterson, who are ranked fifth and seventh, respectively.

Bonny Eagle senior Ami Beaumier is wedged between them as the sixth seed.

There will be a new winner on the boys side as Yarmouth’s Luke Laverdiere, the 2017 individual champion, has taken his running talents to Harvard University.

Laverdiere covered the 5K course in 15:10.86, only 3.94 seconds off the record set in 2013 by Josef Holt-Andrews of Telstar High School in Bethel.

Falmouth’s John Auer is the top seed, having posted a best time of 15:49.72. But Bangor High School senior Gabe Coffey is right behind with a 15:53.00 on his resume.

Coffey overcame an early-race spill to finish 12th a year ago in 16:08.93.

The Nos. 3 and 5 seeds are from Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island: Junior Conor Murphy and senior Joe O’Rourke. Benjamin Potter of Falmouth is the fourth seed.

Rand said one of the highlights will be the freshman boys race where Scarborough’s Zachary Barry, who would be 20th among the seeded boys, and Bangor High’s Daniel McCarthy (35th), are among the favorites.

“It’s going to be a good race. There’s going to be a pretty good pack. It’s going to be very competitive,” predicted Rand.

Another neat aspect of this year’s race will be a reunion, according to Rand.

Former Orono High School runner Jonathan Steelman, who is now a senior at North Augusta High School in South Carolina, will be running in the event with his former Red Riot teammates. He spent three years at Orono High.

Steelman’s father, Todd, was the associate head coach for the University of Maine women’s basketball team before taking the head coaching job at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, in 2016.

“[Jonathan Steelman] had emailed me about coming up and competing. I thought it was a pretty cool idea,” Rand said.

Steelman is one of four runners seeded 38th with a best of 17:15.00.

“It’s a great event. It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it. It’s a big celebration for the sport,” Rand said.

The team champions in 2017 were the Concord (New Hampshire) boys team and the Glastonbury (Connecticut) girls team.

The event begins at 10:30 a.m. with the boys unseeded Section A race followed by the boys unseeded Section B race at 11:10 and the girls unseeded section at 11:50. The boys freshman race starts at 12:30 p.m., followed by the girls freshman event at 1:10, the boys seeded race at 1:50 and the girls seeded race at 2:30. The awards ceremony will follow at 3:15.

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