On the surprisingly quiet bus ride home from Belfast after Saturday’s Festival of Champions, Camden Hills sophomore Brittany Bowman spoke up.

“We need to start running mountains,” she said.

One year after not winning a single meet, the Windjammers are climbing the heights of Maine’s cross country world. They were runners-up to Mt. Desert Island Saturday in a field of 40 schools, outperforming well-established programs from Falmouth, Brunswick and Mt. Blue, among others.

“It was an incredible day,” said Camden Hills Coach Becky Flanagan, whose team handled the muddy 5-kilometer course at Troy Howard Middle School with aplomb despite only three girls wearing spikes.

In fact, Willow Parker, the only freshman invited to take part in the seeded race, not only didn’t wear spikes, she wore the glove-like rubber-soled shoes favored by barefoot runners. Parker placed eighth in a little more than 20 minutes, with Bowman 15 seconds behind in 10th.

“I can’t imagine (Parker) got a better grip,” than those wearing spikes, Flanagan said. “She is such a competitor though. Willow does not get intimidated.”

A year ago, Camden Hills placed 20th at the Festival, with only two individuals among the top 150 runners. On Saturday, the Windjammers placed four among the top 50 and seven among the top 85 of a field that surpassed 450.

Junior Emily Lopez was 40th, freshman Sam Morse 50th and sophomore Lily Kassen — who fell — and freshman Ella Scott came in together at 66th and 67th. Another freshman — one of nine for Camden Hills — placed 85th, Rosie Lawson.

“I asked them to run their hearts out and they did,” Flanagan said. “They were slipping and sliding, but it was absolutely wonderful to be running toe to toe with (MDI). My girls really have an idea now of what they need to do to get close to them.”

Camden Hills has not qualified for the state meet as a team in Flanagan’s five years, so her runners have yet to compete at Twin Brook in Cumberland, site of this year’s state meet. The window for practicing on the course closes Oct. 15, seven days before the Western Maine regionals.

Camden Hills, of course, will have to qualify from the East, whose regionals are scheduled for Belfast on Oct. 22. The trip back to Camden from that meet might be a tad more raucous.

“To go from 20th to second is a little overwhelming,” Flanagan said of Saturday’s return. “They weren’t sure how to react. They were excited, sure, but a little bit on the quiet side.”

PART OF the beauty of cross country is seeing runners who may never score in a meet nonetheless make tremendous strides. They get in better shape. They set goals and work hard to achieve them. They learn discipline.

“All of a sudden, they become more organized and more efficient with their homework,” Cheverus Coach Valerie Guillet said. “So it touches them in all sorts of ways.”

One of Guillet’s favorite memories of last fall came not at regional, state or New England meets, but at a final home meet at Cheverus. That’s when Hillary Morin, who had never broken 23 minutes in a race, covered her 3-mile home course in 22:18 in large part because six teammates stayed with her the whole time, spurring her on.

“It truly transformed her life, to be able to have these goals and meet them, to see her body change and improve,” Guillet said. “She wrote all her college essays on her accomplishments in cross country, and it’s not like she was a top 5 runner.”

Now at the University of Maine in Orono, Morin wears her 2010 state championship jacket with considerable pride.

THE CHEVERUS girls’ and boys’ teams will compete in the Manhattan Invitational Sunday at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, where some of the nation’s top teams are expected. “It’s going to be good because they’ve done really well this season, gone pretty much undefeated,” Guillet said. “You tend to be a little bit complacent when that happens.” One runner who has made great strides since last year is Cape Elizabeth sophomore Liam Simpson, who didn’t make varsity until the conference meet. This fall, he has run second or third for the Capers and improved at the Festival of Champions from 159th as a freshman to 41st Saturday. “He really dedicated himself this summer to becoming a better runner, and it’s paying off,” said Cape Coach Derek Veilleux. “He’s more confident and a leader on the team.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: [email protected]

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