BLUE HILL — Winning the first state championship in team history was a challenging feat for the George Stevens Academy girls’ cross-country team. Now that a banner commemorating it is hanging from the school gym, the Eagles are ready for what’s next.
In 2016, the team spent the entire year battling injuries and fighting off other contenders. It wasn’t until the final week of the season — in the state championship meet no less — that it had its entire squad together, and the result was a historic title win.
This year, everyone is healthy to enter the season, and with the first meet less than two weeks away, GSA is ready to carry over its success. With the exception of Bella Cimeno, the Eagles are returning each of their top athletes.
“We’ve definitely caught lightning in the bottle with this group,” coach Erich Reed said. “These girls have battled through a lot, and having athletes with this mental toughness and talent come together at the same time is something you can’t take for granted.”
That group is now back as seniors rather than underclassmen. Mary Richardson, Eliza Broughton, Zeya Lorio, Tess Williamson and Mary Brenna Catus all enter their final years at GSA, and inexperience isn’t a concern — not that it ever was.
“I don’t think we let the ‘young team’ stuff bother us [last year] because our team had still been running together a long time,” Broughton said. “What we did do was focus a lot on the things behind the scenes that people don’t see — looking at the mental aspect and not just the physical aspect.”
Broughton, Richardson and Lorio frequently earned top-five finishes throughout the team’s historic 2016 campaign. Those runners had made a big impact for GSA in 2015 as well, but a change in the team’s approach prior to last season helped the trio achieve a new level of success.
“We wanted to stay together in packs more at the beginning of races,” Richardson said. “People often think of cross-country as an individual sport, but when we stuck together on the course as a team early in those races, it paid off for us at the head of the pack over the long run.”
The strategy worked. After a third-place finish at the Ellsworth Invitational to open the season, GSA posted a clean sweep of the top six at the Bucksport Invitational the following weekend.
“The Bucksport meet was when people started to realize just how special this team was,” Richardson said. “We knew we were a tight-knit group and that we might have a big year, but that was the meet where it all came together.”
As the year went on, GSA and Orono, another perennial contender, separated themselves from the rest of the field in Class C. At the conference championships, the Red Riots beat the Eagles on a tiebreaker when both finished with 32 points. Two weeks later, Broughton, Richardson and Lorio finished a respective second, third and fourth to give GSA a one-point win at the regional meet.
That set up a showdown at the state championships Nov. 5. GSA’s star trio finished in the top five once again, and Eagles denied Orono’s bid at a fourth straight state championship with a nine-point win.
“Orono is a big rival, and everyone in the state is always trying to beat them,” Richardson said. “Both teams had a lot of injuries and had to fight hard through them all year long, but we finally pulled it together and got healthy in time for the state meet.”
The Red Riots will be a contender once again this year, and Mattanawcook Academy will also provide GSA with stiff competition. The former must replace top runners Hannah Steelman and Kassidy Dill, while the latter will return what is expected to be a strong junior class from last year’s squad.
GSA will open its title defense Sept. 2 at the Ellsworth Invitational. Although the Eagles finished a respectable third at that meet last season, the team’s improvements over the course of the year has its runners thinking they can do even better this time around.
“We did well [at the Ellsworth meet last year], but we did better in some of the other races,” Richardson said. “There’s definitely going to be another state championship on our minds, and that means we have to get off to a good start.”