For the past three cross country seasons, Triton girls coach Joe Colbert could always rely on one thing: Keely Maguire finishing first. The placement of his runners behind Maguire wasn't as predictable, but, nonetheless, Colbert's teams posted a 27-9 record from 2005-2007.

Maguire, a perennial state contender, graduated last spring after accepting a full scholarship to University of New Hampshire. To the surprise of many, Triton has not experienced the rebuilding season that typically accompanies the loss of a league champion.

Triton enters this afternoon's showdown with Newburyport (3:45 p.m., Wilmington High) with a chance to clinch a winning record. Triton (6-3) sits one win ahead of Newburyport (5-4) in the Cape Ann League Large standings.

"I think everyone is surprised," Triton runner Erin Loughlin said. "We knew we'd be good, but with the loss of Keely, we didn't know how good."

The Vikings have a total of 10 girls — at least 20 fewer than some of the CAL Large schools like Masconomet and North Andover. Of that 10, none is a senior. The team's success, Colbert believes, can be attributed to newly assumed responsibilities. With Maguire aboard last season, many of his girls were content falling to the middle of the pack rather than challenging the lead pace.

"The girls have come a long way," Colbert said. "In the past, they'd look to Keely and say, 'She'll finish first, so we can relax.' They're learning to be a team."

The CAL is currently stacked with athletes rivaling Maguire's top-notch speed with Masconomet's Abby D'Agostino, Hamilton-Wenham's Emily Lanois, North Andover's Kirsten Kasper and Pentucket's Alanna Poretta. Having coached the sure-thing No. 1 runner in the past, Colbert appreciates the approach of this year's team by way of comparison.

"As good as Keely was, and as much as she did for our program, it's a team now," Colbert said. "There's something rewarding about that. Everyone pulls their weight, and I enjoy this more. To see a group of young kids getting better and better every week is a lot of fun."

Triton's new approach nearly mirrors that of Newburyport, although the Clippers use a pack mentality with a group of seniors led by Lindsay Cullen and Kim Martins. Cullen typically finishes 30 seconds to a minute in front of Martins, who then finishes about 30 seconds in front of a pack of four or five Clippers. Triton's top two runners, the Loughlin sisters (Erin and Colleen), figure to compete for first with Cullen and Martins. Triton's Sara Auwerda will look to cross the finish line before Newburyport's next pack of runners.

"It's going to come down to who runs the best race on that day," Newburyport coach Don Hennigar said. "They're all in the same ballpark. They key to their success has been finding a third girl (Auwerda). As good as the (Loughlin) twins are, I expected a big gap before the third runner. That's made them competitive."

Auwerda is in her first year of cross country after running track last spring. Improving every meet, she is approaching the times of the Loughlin twins.

"We really don't know when her improvement will end," Colbert said. "She's not far behind the Loughlins, but they don't feel threatened by her. They're really her biggest supporters."

A River Rival Showdown

Sport: Cross Country

Teams: Newburyport vs. Triton

When: Today, 3:45 p.m.

Where: Wilmington High

Records: Newburyport (5-4); Triton (6-3)

Key runners: N — Lindsay Cullen, Kim Martins; T — Erin Loughlin, Colleen Loughlin

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