The Camden Hills of Rockport girls cross country team had no specific expectations as the 2011 season began, which makes sense given that more than half of the Windjammers’ lead pack had never run a high school race before.

But as the runners’ times have come down, their aspirations have risen.

After not winning a meet a year ago, coach Becky Flanagan’s team now is focused on qualifying for the New England Cross Country Championships, to be held Nov. 12 at Ponaganset High School in North Scituate, R.I.

Coming off a convincing victory at last weekend’s Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference meet, where it not only defeated its Class B competition but also topped Class A leaders Mount Ararat of Topsham and Brunswick in the combined scoring, Camden Hills begins its quest to earn a trip to the New Englands on Saturday at the Eastern Maine championships to be held on the 3.1-mile course at the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast.

Competition is scheduled to begin with the Class C races, with the girls to run at 11 a.m. and the boys at 11:35. That’s followed by the Class A girls at 12:10 p.m. and the boys at 12:45. The Class B girls run at 1:20 p.m., with the Class B boys at 1:55.

The top 50 percent of the teams in each race will advance to next Saturday’s state championships at the Twin Brook Recreation Area in Cumberland, as will the top 30 individual finishers in each division.

“It’s like riding a wave, and it’s a great wave,” said Flanagan of her team’s sudden rise. “The girls are hoping to do well this weekend and hope to do really, really well next weekend because they really want to go to the New Englands.”

The state championship teams from Classes A, B and C all qualify for the New Englands, followed by the next three teams at the state meet regardless of class.

And there’s no reason to believe Camden Hills won’t be among the teams contending for one of those six spots.

In addition to their dominant performance at the KVACs, the Windjammers finished second among 40 girls teams earlier this month at the Festival of Champions in Belfast.

“We’ve stepped it up a lot since the Festival of Champions,” said Flanagan, Camden Hills’ fifth-year head coach. “That’s when the girls realized they could do this.”

The Windjammers are led by sophomore Brittany Bowman and freshman Willow Parker, who finished 2-3 at the KVACs. Junior Emily Lopez, who came over to the cross country team after previously playing soccer at Camden Hills, has settled in as the team’s third seed, with sophomore Lily Kassen and freshman Samantha Morse, Ella Scott, Rosie Lawson and Helen Carter also playing key scoring roles.

The team is not lacking for depth, either. Camden Hills also won the KVAC girls junior varsity race.

“We have some depth,” said Flanagan. “We’re very, very fortunate because we have a strong feeder program at the middle school.”

Camden Hills won’t be the favorite in the Eastern B girls race. That honor likely will go to Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, the only team to defeat the Windjammers at the Festival of Champions and currently ranked second in the state coaches poll, one spot ahead of Camden Hills.

“They are a very, very solid team,” said Flanagan. “We want to see what we can do against them.”

Since competing against the Trojans earlier this season, the Windjammers have adopted at least one phase of MDI’s training regimen.

“After the Festival of Champions, Brittany Bowman said we better run mountains because MDI runs mountains, and ever since then we’ve been running mountains,” said Flanagan. “Now we run up Beech Hill, and it’s a beautiful run, but it’s really rugged.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...