Sofie Matson of Falmouth, shown winning the Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions race in Belfast, will try to win her third straight individual title on Saturday when 1,900 descend on the course at Troy Howard Middle School. Credit: Courtesy of Glendon Rand

It is by far the biggest event of its kind in Maine each year. Approximately 1,900 high school runners are registered for Saturday’s 18th annual Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions at the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast.

The bragging rights for winning such an event are considerable, yet the regional and state championship meets are still several weeks away.

“I treat it as a midseason check,” Bangor coach Roger Huber said. “We don’t train for it. We train right through it with our eyes on the postseason championship season. But it is the first opportunity we have to see some of those top southern Maine schools and to gauge our position relative to those schools so we take it very seriously.”

Last year’s race proved valuable to the Bangor boys squad on multiple fronts. Gabe Coffey won top individual honors, Dan McCarthy emerged as the state’s top freshman runner of 2018 and the Rams used their second-place team effort as the springboard to a runner-up finish behind Scarborough at the Class A state championships.

“It was a huge confidence boost for us,” Huber said. “I don’t think the boys team had an appreciation for how strong they were until that meet, and it certainly gave them some confidence going into the postseason.

“I’d love to have another week like that.”

Ellsworth coach Louis Luchini returns the nucleus of his 2018 girls squad that captured the Class B state championship after placing 18th at the Festival of Champions.

“Our focus really is on regionals and states, so we’re certainly not peaking for this race, and I don’t try to put too much of an emphasis on the performance here,” he said. “I just think it’s a fun race for the kids to be in, to see kids they normally don’t see, and to get out there and run hard.”

Luchini, a former All-American distance runner at Stanford University, appreciates the one-of-a-kind celebration of the sport that has made the Festival of Champions so popular over the years.

“It’s pretty cool to watch such a huge event here in the state, and it’s hard for the kids not to get nervous when you have 300-plus kids in your race,” he said.

“It sounds like a stampede at the beginning of the race, and it’s really fun from a spectator’s standpoint. I just make sure the kids know that it’s not a meet where I put a big emphasis on their performance and times. We’re still training for later in the season.”

Huber finds value in the early opportunity chance to see and compete against other top Class A teams in the state.

“The beauty of the festival is that the level of the competition is so good and that it will be the first time we’ve competed against some of those really strong southern Maine teams like Scarborough and Brunswick and Greely and Kennebunk,” he said.

“Having that many runners just brings out the best in everybody.”

One of the top storylines this year likely will be the pursuit of individual course records.

Two-time defending girls champion Sofie Matson, a junior from Falmouth, has a 5-kilometer seed time of 17 minutes, 29.36 seconds. That is faster than the existing course standard of 17:31.65 set by Julia Robitaille of Manchester (New Hampshire) West High School in winning the 2017 New England championship.

Matson is the favorite to add a third Festival of Champions victory as her seed time is well ahead of the second-fastest seed time of 18:13.51 held by Falmouth classmate Karley Piers.

Will Shaughnessy, a senior from Brunswick, is the top boys seed (15:13.00). That is within striking distance of the course record of 15:06.92 set in 2013 by Josef-Holt Andrews of Telstar Regional High School in Bethel. Shaughnessy finished third in this race last fall.

The Festival of Champions begins at 10:30 a.m. with the first of two unseeded boys races. The schedule also includes one girls unseeded race and boys and girls freshman races leading up to the girls seeded race at 1:50 p.m. and the boys seeded race at 2:30 p.m.

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...