ORONO, Maine — The leaderboards for the recent Class C North high school cross-country championships and Penobscot Valley Middle League title meet featured some remarkable similarities.
Not only did Orono High School and Orono Middle School win their respective girls’ competitions, but the top four Red Riots in the high school meet were also the older sisters of Orono’s top four runners at the middle-school event.
Leading the high school team to victory were senior Camille Kohtala, who won the Class C North race, sophomores Erin Gerbi (second place) and Julia White (fifth), and freshman Nora White (seventh).
Pacing the middle-school squad were race winner Ruth White, a seventh-grader and Nora’s sister, eighth-grader Megan Gerbi (second place), seventh-grader Rebecca White (third place) and eighth-grader Katherine Kohtala (sixth).
“We’re just in a unique place where four girls are in high school and four of their younger sisters are in middle school, and they’re all running great,” said Chris Libby, the Orono Middle School cross-country and Orono High School indoor and outdoor track coach.
While the teams can’t see all of each other’s races because of conflicting schedules, the older sisters were able to see the middle school team’s final meet of the year Thursday at the Airline Middle School Invitational in Aurora. And the younger sisters were on hand Saturday to watch the Orono High School girls win their second straight Class C state championship.
“It’s been great to have them come to our meets and support us and for us to be able to support them as often as possible,” Erin Gerbi said. “It’s also great knowing that after we’re gone there’s going to be so many talented people still at Orono who run fast and work hard.”
Last weekend’s title, which qualified the Orono High girls for the New England championships on Nov. 10 in Manchester, New Hampshire, was just the latest example of the college town’s status as a small-school track and cross-country power.
At the high school level alone, the Orono girls cross-country team coached by Lin White — Nora and Ruth’s dad — has won five state championships in the past six years, while producing such notable recent alumnae as newly crowned Southern Conference cross-country champion Hannah Steelman, a sophomore at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and fellow NCAA Division I runner Kassidy Dill, a sophomore at North Carolina-Greensboro.
Orono High also has won the Class C state crown in girls’ outdoor track six of the past seven years and captured the Class B indoor state championship as recently as 2016.
On the boys’ side, Orono High finished second at the Class C state meet after winning the title each of the two previous seasons and has won the Class C state crown in outdoor track three of the past four years.
Siblings have played a significant role in those success stories over the years, according to Orono High School athletic administrator Mike Archer.
“I think it’s unique in regards to how much of a culture cross-country and track has been at our school for a number of years,” he said. “Different families have come through, and right now we have a pocket of families with kids having success at both the high school and the middle school.”
Orono’s current sibling running relationships aren’t limited to the girls. Orono High boys runner Colby Pawson has a younger brother, Caleb, on the middle-school team, while high school teammate Kyle McClellan’s sister, Ayla, also runs middle school cross-country.
“I just think it speaks volumes about the family commitment, the motivation and inspiration of siblings, and the history of siblings running in Maine,” Archer said.
Many of those athletic relationships are nurtured through the town’s popular summer track and field program, where youngsters start out as participants and often grow by high school into student-coaches who help the next generation of interscholastic runners in the community.
“Everyone makes connections in summer track with the kids they’ll be growing up with and doing track with for the next 10 years,” said Camille Kohtala, a summer track coach for the past three years. “It’s created such a legacy because it always seems like as soon as some of the kids graduate there’s always new kids coming up.
“I think our [high school] success is another thing that motivates the younger girls and gets them excited about moving up to the high school or the middle school.”
Both Lin White and Libby are heavily involved in the summer track program, which averages more than 120 participants per year.
“The kids get excited about the sport at a very young age,” White said. “Most of these kids started in our summer track program and even from a very young age they come to see themselves as running athletes.
“The younger siblings follow the lead of the older siblings and it’s just really fun to watch them come up through the years.”
And while those sibling connections to cross-country and track and field are quite supportive, they’re not without an occasional competitive touch.
“We talk about running a little bit when we’re together,” Erin Gerbi said. “Mostly I’m just scared that [Megan’s] going to become faster than me.”
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