ELLSWORTH, Maine — Many athletic teams base their successes in great part on existing talent, but also pay homage to the tradition of predecessors, who provided examples of championship possibilities.

Then there is the distance running tradition at Ellsworth High School.

One needs only to look in the hallways immediately outside cross-country and track coach Andy Beardsley’s third-floor English classroom, where plaques honoring dozens of past Eagles standouts line the hallways as the home of the school’s running hall of fame.

“The history is pretty incredible, and having the wall of fame really brings it out because without it it’s kind of hard to realize how many great Ellsworth runners there have been,” said Ellsworth senior Dan Curts, a multiple-time state champion in track and cross-country who will continue his athletic career on scholarship at Division I Iowa State University in the fall.

Then there are the in-season traditions that have stood the test of time, such as the annual team T-shirt, the painting of signs with the names of current Ellsworth runners that are nailed to trees in the woods behind the school where they join the signs representing previous runners from the school.

There’s also the annual cross-country team mud run, with not an ATV in sight.

“We have a secret place we don’t tell anybody about, you’re only able to find out if you’re part of the team,” said Beardsley, who became Ellsworth’s head coach in 1991 after serving for two years as an assistant under legendary Eagles’ coach Steve Coffin. “The upperclassmen tell the others what it will be like, and it’s a fair run from the school. We run to the location, we get ourselves as muddy as possible, and then we run from where it is through downtown Ellsworth, screaming and yelling and carrying sticks. Once years ago I got pulled over by a cop saying ‘What are you doing?’

“The kids really enjoy it,” Beardsley said.

Such activities help make a sport that on the surface may not provide the instant gratification required by many in today’s society, something that not only can be rewarding at the finish line but fun every day.

“Ellsworth has the coolest traditions,” said Ellsworth senior Aleta Looker, the state’s top 800-meter runner who, like Curts, has earned a Division I college scholarship for next year, hers at Georgetown University. “I love how all of those things have stayed strong over the years. The shirts, the mud runs, and there are signs way out on the trails we run that you just have to touch, it’s kind of a superstition.”

Perhaps the surest sign of tradition of the staying power within the program has been the continuing presence of some of the great runners of the past as mentors for the current Eagles.

Ellsworth has produced two of the seven Maine runners to win a New England schoolboy cross-country championship, and while Paul Firlotte in 1951 and Louie Luchini in 1998 won those titles 47 years apart, both remain active in the Ellsworth cross-country and track programs.

Luchini, who followed older brother Joey Luchini into the Ellsworth program, went on to finish second at the 1998 Foot Locker national championship meet. He then became an 11-time All-American in cross-country and track at Stanford University before returning to his hometown, where he now serves as a state representative as well as an assistant coach at his high school alma mater.

“I think having him here is big for all of us because of the idea of your own goals being possible and Louie knowing what to do to make those dreams come true,” said Curts. “It’s great to be able to talk to people who have had those goals and had them pan out.”

Firlotte was a three-time state high school cross-country champion for Ellsworth in 1949, 1950 and 1951 as well as a two-time New England runner-up before his breakthrough season as a senior. He went on to be a three-time Yankee Conference cross-country champion while running for the University of Maine.

After retiring from a long career at Great Northern Paper in Millinocket, he came back to his hometown and now attends virtually every Ellsworth cross-country and track meet with fellow retiree Ernie Tracy, a two-time state cross-country champion in 1953 and 1954 who earned All-Ivy League honors while competing at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s so nice that the kids let us into their lives this way, they’re almost like family to me,” said Firlotte, who will turn 81 on Thursday. “They keep us young.”

Firlotte and Tracy share their competitive experiences with the current Ellsworth runners, sometimes through notes and often through phone calls. The younger runners are grateful for the knowledge.

“I’ll talk to Paul and Ernie at the meets, and if they’re not at a meet I’ll call Paul and tell him how the race played out,” said Curts. “It’s great to have those guys give you tips and give you their perspectives.”

The generational connections between Ellsworth runners past and present are just one more strong component of a tight-knit running community that after the high school and college careers end often renews itself in road races around the state.

“Tradition plays a part. You look at schools that have been good in the past and if there’s a tradition in the background that’s always something a coach can use as a motivator,” said Beardsley. “But somehow the tradition has to get started and continue to roll through others, and usually it’s a combination of having a coach who’s interested in the kids, likes what they’re doing and then can just translate that interest and love for the activity to the kids.

“Everybody wants to be part of something that’s successful and looks fun, and I think Steve Coffin really started that here in the 1970s and it really took off. They had success and I’ve just tried to keep that tradition that he got started going,” Beardsley said.

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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...