With a veteran group of runners led by junior ace Corey Conner, there’s no reason why the University of Maine women’s cross country team shouldn’t be one of the top clubs in America East this fall.

Coach Mark Lech’s Black Bears were ranked third by the conference’s coaches, and he’s optimistic his club could finish in the top two in the nine-team league.

“We’re stronger than last year in terms of where people are, it just depends on what other teams got in,” Lech said.

Conner has been looking “scary good,” Lech said, while the other returnees on the women’s side include Jordan Daniel of Farmington, Allison Conner, Corey’s sister, of North Townsend, Mass., Vanessa Letourneau of Fairfield, Jennie Lucy of Bangor and Scarborough’s Whitney Chamberlain.

Corey Conner is the reigning America East individual champ and has blossomed as a college runner.

“If you only have natural talent, you’re only going to get so far,” Lech said. “She’s always had that.”

Lech was hoping to get some contributions out of freshman Rachel Wilkinson of Gorham, but illness has detoured her season a bit.

“She’s been sick. We might sit her down for a while, let her get healthy,” Lech said.

The Bears’ first meet is the Boston College Invitational at Franklin Park on Saturday, and Lech is just hoping for a solid first race.

“I’m not thinking about performances, so to speak, how fast they run. I don’t want them running that fast right now,” he said.

Maine will race against the Boston University, Albany, Northeastern, New Hampshire, Stony Brook and Boston College men and women, along with the Rhode Island, Brown and Massachusetts women.

As far as how things in America East will shake down, only time will tell.

“Stony Brook is still going to be good, Vermont lost their top couple people, I’m not sure how they’ll be, New Hampshire is usually pretty strong, and BU’s gone back and forth, you can never tell about them,” Lech said.

Contrary to the women’s squad, the Maine men will have an influx of veterans and freshmen.

Junior Riley Masters of Bangor will anchor the Black Bears’ pack, while newcomers Jason Kaake of Bath and Kelton Cullenberg of Farmington have looked strong during the preseason.

“Kaake is looking real good right now. He’s hovering between the second and fourth man right now,” said Lech.

Cullenberg, one of the state’s top high school cross country runners along with Kaake last fall, will have to adapt to running year-round at Maine, as he skied during the winter in high school.

“Cullenberg’s got a little ways to go, [but] by the end of the season he’ll catch up with everything,” Lech said. “What hurt him a little bit was he didn’t run during the winter time.”

But Lech thinks the newcomers can keep up with the veterans.

“I think the newcomers are really going to push the veterans, but from what I’ve seen so far the veterans aren’t giving it up,” Lech said. “I have some really good depth this year. Usually it’s been six [contributing] and that’s it, but now all 10 guys, I can see them contributing.

Maine’s other returnees besides Masters include Chris Harmon of Scarborough, Sidney’s David Currier, Spencer McElwain of Caribou, Pat Mullarkey of Mendon, Mass., Taylor Phillips of Brookfield, Conn., and Corey Bean of Cornville.

Masters had an outstanding sophomore year for the Bears, becoming the first Maine athlete to crack the four-minute mile and ran in the NCAA Championships in the mile indoors and 1,500 meters outdoors, but after Masters won the Walter Hunt Memorial 3K in Bangor, Lech thought it was best for Masters to stop running for a while.

“I told him the whole month of July to not do anything,” Lech said. “For his thinking, he’s behind other people, but with his talent, he’s beyond other people right now. Once the end of the season comes along, I think he’ll be right up there.”

Masters’ downtime mainly had to do with the fact his season extended into late June at the USATF Nationals, and with the constant pounding a runner’s feet and knees take, and with Masters heading into what could be a stronger junior campaign, Lech was taking no chances.

“I could’ve rolled the dice and said OK, let’s get back into it and hope that nothing would happen, or take the rest time, be a little bit behind people in September and be right back into it by the end of October into November. He agreed, so that was good. He’s seeing the big picture now.

Lech sees America East being a bit more wide-open this year on the men’s side. Binghamton, which features another Bangor native in Casey Quaglia, is the reigning conference champion.

“I think there might be a little bit of parity right across the board,” Lech said.

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Ryan McLaughlin

BDN sports freelancer Ryan McLaughlin grew up in Brewer and is a lifelong fan of the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins.