GRAY — To break up the monotony of practices and nurture team bonding, Adam Zukowski has had his Gray-New Gloucester cross country team play a little ultimate Frisbee on Thursdays all season.

Last week, the Patriots coach made a deal with his team — qualify for states and get a full week’s worth of time set aside at each practice for Frisbee.

That was all they needed to hear.

“We value our Frisbee time,” senior captain Will Shafer said.

The Patriots didn’t just qualify for Saturday’s state meet at Twin Brook Recreation Area in Cumberland, they finished a surprising third overall in Western B. That meant five times the Frisbee this week.

After looking through some semi-complete school records, the coaching staff believes it is the first time the Gray-New Gloucester boys have qualified to run as a team at state since 1994. The feat wasn’t completely unexpected, but the pluck the Patriots showed in accomplishing it was.

“We knew we were going to be on the cusp of qualifying for states, but we definitely didn’t think we were going to finish third,” said Zukowski, in his seventh year as coach.

Five of Zukowski’s seven runners posted their best times of the year, a rarity on the challenging Twin Brook course. Led by Western Maine Conference champion Shafer, who finished second at regionals, the Patriots have become a complete team.

No one is more excited about that than Shafer, who has been one of the top distance runners in Class B since his sophomore year but has longed to be a part of a team with similar aspirations.

“It made the whole experience exponentially better than if I was going to states individually,” said Shafer, who finished Twin Brook in 16:36.93 last week and has accepted an offer to run for Dartmouth next year.

The rest of the Patriots followed Shafer’s lead, stepping up their training to match his work ethic.

“Hard training and overall good technique got us here,” sophomore Ben Garcia said. “We ran on Saturday’s this year. We didn’t do that last year, so that just bumped it up a little bit.”

Garcia, a sophomore, bumped up his performance to run a PR time (17:27.26) at regionals and finish 14th. Fellow sophomore Austin Cross finished 31st and junior Lucas Nickerson 34th.

Senior Josh Harper, in his first year of running cross country, bettered his PR by 20 seconds to take 53rd and put the Patriots over the top.

“We probably still made it to states without the big breakthrough that he had, but we definitely would not have been third if he didn’t,” Zukowski said.

“I came into the race with the mentality that I was going to do well, but my body was a little tight from the week at school,” Harper said. “I was a little nervous, but I packed in and it worked well.”

Gray-New Gloucester improved throughout a grueling regular season in the WMC, which has produced all but five of the Class B state champions since the Patriots last made the state meet.

Winning their season-ending home quad meet against Merriconeag, Cape Elizabeth and Poland gave the Patriots a shot of confidence heading into the postseason.

“We have gained momentum as the season has gone on. We’ve never really had that in the past,” Shafer said. “We finished fourth at the conference meet two weeks ago, and that was kind of a momentum booster going into regionals.”

“We have a very, very unique team spirit,” Harper said. “We have an interesting team chemistry. There’s a lot of challenging and a lot of fighting, but it’s all in good spirit, all in good fun. It’s very supportive. It gets you pumped for the meets.”

The Patriots have pumped the brakes during practice this week, easing off the intensity of their training, except for Frisbee, of course.

“We’re all stepping it down just to taper a little bit so we’re well-rested for Saturday,” Garcia said.

They aren’t expecting to challenge defending champion Cape Elizabeth and Eastern B champion Ellsworth, but they would like to pull off another surprise and secure another top-five or even top-three score.

“We have to match the intensity we had the week before,” Zukowski said. “I think the kids had a good experience coming together at a big race, so just to have a repeat of what happened last week would be great.”

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