After a successful 2007 cross-country season in which the Caribou girls finished third, just one point out of second in the Eastern Maine Class B championship meet, the Vikings are poised to take the next step.

Fourth-year head coach Thomas Beckum has four runners returning from last year’ s team, including senior frontrunner Hannah Saunders and sophomore Mary Jo Sheehan, who nearly set a course record for her age group at the Beach to Beacon 10K Saturday.

Although they could have started preseason practices last week, the Vikes won’ t get things started officially until Aug. 13, but they are meeting for informal runs a couple times a week.

“The kids get together Mondays and Wednesdays and go run, running on their own [before practice officially begins] is the key,” said Beckum, who is expected to coach a squad of 18 to 21 runners, the largest he has ever had.

The Vikings will field a young squad this fall.

Another key returnee is sophomore Dayna Michaudwhile incoming freshman Ashley Clark and Katelynn Plourde will look to play key roles.

“[Clark’ s] going to be a big addition to the program,” Beckum said. “[Plourde] will probably make the top five.”

Unlike in years past, Beckum is making a slight twist in the Vikings training regime.

“I’ m going to do something different this year, no speedwork until after the first meet, we really want to try to peak for state meet,” he said. “That’ s the most important thing.”

Caribou will open its season with its traditional alumni meet under the lights on Aug. 22 before the traditional season-opening Ellsworth Invitational Sept. 6. They will sandwich the MDI Relay meet on Aug. 30.

“It’ s one of my favorite races and there are a lot of people there,” Beckum said of the Ellsworth meet, which features a flat, runner-friendly course and traditionally draws some of the top teams in Western Maine, such as York and Falmouth.

However, since the MDI Relay meet was switched to the final weekend of August this season, that’ ll be a good way for the younger runners to get early experience.

“It’ s a short race, and the freshmen don’ t have to run in a big race right at the beginning,” said Beckum.

The Vikes will be among three teams expected to contend for Class B bragging rights this fall, along with defending champion Mount Desert Island and John Bapst of Bangor.

“I think it’ s going to be MDI and John Bapst for sure, Bapst will be tough, I think,” Beckum said.

One of the things the Vikings are doing this fall is revamping their invitational, which is Sept. 13.

After talking to some fellow coaches, Beckum got a brainstorm to run the Caribou Invitational similar to the old Waterville Invitational, where every team’ s No. 1 runner races against each other, then the No. 2 runners a race short time later, all the way up through No. 7.

“Everyone was talking what a great invite Waterville used to put on,” said Beckum. “There were a lot of requests from coaches to get something like that going.”

While some PVC powerhouses like John Bapst and Ellsworth plan on coming, Beckum said, he’ d like to get some Western Maine teams and KVAC schools, such as Brewer, Bangor and Hampden Academy, to participate.

“It would be fun competing against Brewer and Bangor,” said Beckum, who added that since the Brewer girls are favored in the Eastern Maine Class A ranks this fall, that would be a good test for his team.

Kelley Crush-ing competition

Former Hermon High and University of Maine-bound pitcher Ashley Kelley has enjoyed a strong summer of softball for the Polar Crush Gold, an Under-18 team comprised of some of New England’ s top high school players.

In their most recent game against the Stratford (Conn.) Brakettes, Kelley gave up two runs on seven hits in a 2-0 loss against a team that had gone 45-1 over the course of the year and played against the U.S. Olympic team.

Kelley and the Crush will participate in the American Softball Association’ s Gold National Tournament in Oklahoma City this weekend.

Tourney for Special Olympics

The 18th annual All-Star Soccer tournament, consisting of former high school players from schools in the Western Maine Conference and Southern Maine Activities Association, is set for today with the rain date on Thursday.

The event kicks off at 6 p.m. at South Portland High School, with all proceeds benefiting Special Olympics Maine.

The men’ s game will start at 6 p.m. followed by the women’ s game at 8 p.m. Jon Shardlow of Waynflete in Portland and Cape Elizabeth’ s Kevin Harvey will coach the WMC women’ s team while Greely of Cumberland Center’ s Mike Andreason and Waynflete’ s Brandon Salway coach the men’ s team.

Coaching the SMAA teams are Vince Aceto of Westbrook and Jeanne Zarrilli of Gorham on the women’ s side and Andy Lefebvre of Deering in Portland and Noble of North Berwick’ s Rob Brown for the men.

Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students.