The mass start of nearly 140 runners was a new experience. So was the jockeying for personal space in the pack of women running on a narrowing trail.

The University of New England freshman held her own. The sharp elbows digging at Brittney Sorbello’s slight, 5-foot-4 body as she ran? The body bumping? That wasn’t so new for the former high school field hockey all-star. Opponents had to fight Sorbello to get the ball.

Which may be why she didn’t sound surprised talking about her victories in the first two big meets of her career. Sorbello knows winning.

Cross country season is under way for the four NCAA Division III schools in Southern Maine. Bowdoin, St. Joseph’s, UNE and the University of Southern Maine may be in different conferences but they’re no strangers in the hotly contested world of collegiate cross country in New England.

The four schools cross paths several times at various invitationals on Saturday afternoons. The prize is the NCAA New England regional meets for women and men on the USM course at the Narragansett School in Gorham. It’s the qualifier for the national meet.

Sorbello can’t know what’s ahead for her. She played field hockey for her Dover, N.H., high school team. She was voted onto New Hampshire’s all-state team. She put down her stick when she made her pharmacy major at UNE a priority. Pharmacy will demand more of her time on the Portland campus in later years.

“I really miss field hockey but I needed the time flexibility running will give me,” Sorbello said before Wednesday’s practice. She ran the 800 meters and mile during indoor and spring track seasons at Dover High.

Moving from the track to the trails and extending her race from a mile to three kilometers has not been daunting. “She’s very fit,” said UNE Coach Ron Ouellette. “She had to learn more about pacing and whether she’s running too fast or too slow. We tell our first-year runners to get with a fast pack and let it drag you over the course.”

Sorbello won the UNE Invitational on Sept. 14, helping her team finish second to Salve Regina. The next Saturday she won the Pop Crowell Invitational at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. With fellow freshman Tiana Thomas of Waterville taking third, the team placed seven runners in the top 14 to win.

The UNE women won their first Commonwealth Coast Conference championship last year behind lead runner Michaela Moran, a freshman who transferred to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

If Sorbello is among the newest of the talented collegiate runners in southern Maine, Coby Horowitz of Bowdoin is the best.

The senior from Stow, Mass., won last weekend’s USM Invitational. It was his third straight win in a regional race going back to last spring, when he was first in the very competitive New England Small College Athletic Conference title meet and the New England Division III championship race.

The Bowdoin men finished third in the USM Invitational, one point behind rival Bates. Sam Seekins (South China, Erskine Academy), the senior co-captain with Horowitz and NCAA regional runner-up to Horowitz last fall, didn’t run. MIT was the men’s champion. The Bowdoin Invitational runs Saturday on the Brunswick campus.

At St. Joseph’s, Amber Dostie (Standish, Bonny Eagle) is the returning Great Northeast Athletic Conference women’s cross country champ.

The junior was the team’s No. 1 runner in all six meets she ran. She was named the GNAC Runner of the Year for the second time last season. Her goal this year is to qualify for the NCAA championship meet. Lauren Rabideau (Ballston Spa, N.Y.), the conference Rookie of the Year last season, returns.

C.J. Vallie (Nashua, N.H.), has been UNE’s lead male runner in the early weeks of the season. The sophomore made the all-conference team last season, when the men were conference runners-up.

At the University of Southern Maine, the top four runners on the women’s team have cut 15 to 20 seconds off their times on the same course from a year ago.

Sophomore Hannah Damron (Windham) finished seventh and was the lead runner at the USM Invitational, which included four teams ranked in the top 35 nationally. Senior Caitlin Miller (Pepperell, Mass.) has shown marked improvement.

Briar Beede (Augusta, Cony) has stunned with his improvement.

The senior dropped weight and added mileage to his training. A senior and the brother to Morgan Beede, a captain on the women’s team, Beede was first at the Husson Harrier Classic for his first collegiate victory. He was 32nd out of 284 runners at the USM Invitational to lead the men’s team to a 10th-place finish.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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