SOUTH PARIS – Last fall, Tom Esponette spent a great deal of his cross country races chasing the leader. This time around, he makes the field chase him.

Tuesday, the Edward Little senior sprinted out to the front early and held off a pair of Lewiston Blue Devils in what proved to be a tune up race for Saturday’s Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions in Belfast. The Red Eddies won the boys’ team title by a 29-36 score over the runner-up Blue Devils. Host Oxford Hills had 60 points in the three-team race.

On the girls’ side, Ashley Bemis led a strong Lewiston contingent with her first-place finish (22 minutes, 37 seconds). Five more Blue Devil teammates crossed the line before any Red Eddie or Viking runner to give Lewiston a perfect score of 15. Edward Little was second with 45 points.

More than 40 schools are expected to compete in the Belfast race, including five that are ranked in the latest Top 10 coaches’ poll, so neither Edward Little nor Lewiston ran at full throttle. The Blue Devils raced without two of their top runners in Matt Driscoll and Tom Tripp. Both squads treated the race as a training practice for Saturday.

“I took a lot off,” said Esponette. “I took it easy. Saturday’s the big one.”

Esponette has been the Red Eddies’ top runner all season long. His sprint to the lead in the first 50 meters came as no surprise.

“This year I like to stay toward the front one or two runners,” he said. “Last year I had to work and jockey for position. This way I can save my energy.”

Esponette held a slight edge over Lewiston’s Jeff Lucier and Robbie Leeman as he approached the midway point of the race. While running up a hill near the 1.4-mile mark, he was aggressively working his arms to the left and right, much like a cross country skier would with ski poles while racing up a hill.

As he coasted to the finish line, Esponette took one last glance behind him. There wasn’t one blue jersey in sight. His winning time was 17:41.

“Our top five runners had a scheduled workout for today,” said Esponette. “We used the race as a tempo run instead of a meet.”

“It ended up being a little bit more than a tempo run for Tommy,” said EL coach Dan Campbell. “He doesn’t like to lose.”

Lucier and Leeman finished in the two and three spots, with teammate George Foster outkicking EL’s Tyler Gammon for fourth. Four of the next five runners crossing were Red Eddies. The top finisher for Oxford Hills was Josh Grenier in seventh.

“It’s great to think that our two schools have the potential chance to be the top two at the KVACs,” said Campbell. “It’s just like back in the ’70’s. Once our 2-through-5 runners have confidence in each other, I’m hoping they can pull one another along.”

According to Lewiston coach Ray Putnam, the girls’ victory was the team’s first in more than 15 years.

“Edward Little wasn’t out there running that hard today,” said Putnam. “But our top six ran under 26 minutes. We’re hoping by the regional meet we can get all six under 24 minutes. If we can do that, we have a good chance to compete at states, which is our goal for the season.”

Bemis’ only competition came from teammate Ashley Morgan, who finished second.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Bemis said of her team’s win. “It feels great. We’ve got so many girls that have never run (cross country) before, and they’re running awesome.”

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