Jillian Richardson stetches before practice at Edward Little High School to warm up. Richardson is heading to the Class A XC state championships in Belfast on Saturday. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Jillian Richardson finished eight seconds behind Falmouth sophomore Sofie Matson at the Festival of Champions meet at the end of September.

Nearly a year earlier, when Matson was a freshman, she won the Class A state title by 37 seconds. Richardson came in 94 seconds late, in 17th place.

The 2018 edition of the Festival of Champions was Richardson’s coming out party, one could argue, as the Edward Little senior finished with a personal record of 18:29, and was eight seconds away from Matson. That’s the closest a Maine runner has finished to the Falmouth sophomore in her short high school career.

On Saturday, Richardson will get another chance, her last, at catching Matson on Maine soil, and it will be at the same course Richardson ran her personal best: Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast.

“I did get quite a bit of confidence from that,” Richardson said. “I was like, ‘OK, I am up here with the big dogs.’ I have raced against her not many times because, you know, different regions, but I was hoping I could keep her in my sights.”

Richardson started running when she was just a few years old, and has been going ever since. While she finished 17th at the Class A state meet in 2017, she has made tremendous leaps and bounds under new head coach Keith Weatherbie.

Weatherbie began coaching at Cape Elizabeth in 1968 and has trained many great athletes, none-more notable than Olympic gold medal marathon winner Joan Benoit.

“It’s my first year coaching here, but I coached for a long time at Cape Elizabeth and I coached Joan Benoit Samuelson, and she ran with the boys,” Weatherbie said. “I have worked with her and Jillian is the closest thing that I have seen to Joan Benoit, because she is short like Joan is, she’s only 5 feet tall. And she’s an incredibly hard worker. She’s a joy to coach, she does everything you ask her to do.”

The skill most lacking in Richardson’s arsenal of weapons last year was her kick at the end of races. That became a point of focus for Weatherbie and Richardson, and the results of strong summer training and focused speed work have been noticeable.

“One day, we were doing speed work, for example, and it was a really tough workout, and when I was finished I said, ‘Back when I was coaching Joanie Benoit she would do this and this and this,’” Weatherbie said. “And Jillian said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ That’s the type she is. She has all the enthusiasm in the world and loves to run.”

The senior ran 48 seconds faster at her home course of Auburn Middle School in 2018, breaking the course record with a time of 19:07.

“She’s had some success, and before the first meet she had some questions, and I said to her, ‘Jillian, I think I know what I am doing,’” Weatherbie said. “She was then 50 seconds faster than she was last year at the same course, and then she realized that maybe we were doing something right.”

Richardson has committed to Weatherbie’s workouts ever since. The EL star was excited about her early-season start, but what she was really working for was the three big meets at the end of the season.

“It’s funny, at the beginning of the season he told me, ‘Don’t be worried if at the beginning you aren’t feeling your best, we are training for the end,’” Richardson said. “Which, definitely, is what I wanted. I’ve always wanted to have a good finish to the season.”

With the boost she received from Festival of Champions, Richardson grinded through the early meets of October into the KVAC championship meet, which she won with a time of 19:27 — 70 seconds ahead of second-place Kahryn Cullenberg of Mt. Blue.

“I was feeling pretty confident because I love that course, it’s one of my favorite courses,” Richardson said. “I actually liked the weather that day, it was rainy, a little bit colder, and I just took the lead at the beginning and just took it from there.”

After her KVAC title, the Northern Maine Class A Regional championship race was the same story as Richardson outlasted Cullenberg once again to earn a 33-second win.

The plan to peak at the end of the season has been paying off. For Weatherbie, the proof was at Festival of Champions when Matson was showing signs of nervousness near the end of the race.

“The first thing they said to me was, ‘Wow, she has really gotten good in a short time,’” Weatherbie said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, she has.’ They were shocked how close she was getting to (Matson) and I know their girl was getting worried. When they had a half-mile to go she kept looking back. Jillian will give it her best effort on Saturday (at the state championship meet). I don’t know if she can beat her or not, but she will certainly try.”

With her final high school cross country race in Maine on the horizon, Richardson has a plan to give it all she has in Belfast one more time.

“Pretty much, just, I feel like Sofie races a pretty similar race each time,” Richardson said. “I am going to really try and stick close, because maybe I feel like I could have some kind of chance by mile two … I’ll try to stick close and hopefully get a PR there.”

Jillian Richardson takes a lap around the lap at Edward Little High School to warm up. Richardson is heading to the Class A XC state championships Saturday in Belfast. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)


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