BELFAST — During the 2021 cross-country season at Belfast Area High School, four Lion student-athletes ran fast enough to qualify for the coveted state championship race — and three of them do not even consistently attend classes at the school.

Meara McVearry, Juniper Fowler and Will Robbins have been homeschooled since kindergarten, with McVearry a sophomore and Fowler and Robbins juniors.

And they, along with teammate Westley Dyer, earned the opportunity to compete in the state championship meet on Saturday, Oct. 30 on their home course — albeit a rain-soaked, slippery and muddy 3.1-mile track — at Troy Howard Middle School.

Of the 100 runners in the state Class B championship girls race, McVearry finished 41st (22:28.06) and Fowler 47th (22:58.99). Of the 103 state Class B championship boys runners, Robbins finished 21st (18:17.18).

Juniper Fowler. Photo courtesy of Amy Robbins

In fact, when the 266 girls from the three classes (A, B and C) who ran the course that day were combined, McVearry earned the 117th spot and Fowler 141st. When the 320 boys from the classes were combined, Robbins was 87th.

Being homeschooled presented a few hurdles for the runners, mostly in the aspect of coming into a group of student-athletes whom had formed connections.

“Breaking into a new social group had some challenges since there were many previous connections between the runners,” Robbins said.

He said he felt a little out of the loop, but credited cross-country coaches Henri Bouchard and Jo-Ann Nealey for making him feel welcome.

“Through the season, I gained confidence and got to know my team as well as my competitors,” Robbins said.

“This made me feel like I was part of a school team, and also a part of a much larger community of competitive runners,” he said.

Fowler said the first season she ran cross country, she found it a bit difficult because she did not know many of the students, and they already knew one another through school.

“After the first season, I got to know people, and especially this year I felt that it wouldn’t have made a difference if I was at the school full-time,” she said.

“The first few weeks of practice were a bit difficult because I didn’t know many people,” McVearry said.

McVearry said she got to know the team quickly, and despite not seeing one another in school each day, became friends with many of her teammates.

“Running is something that I can connect with people through,” she said. “Having a group that supports each other and cheers each other on like our team did this year is super motivating.”

Meara McVearry. Photo courtesy of Amy Robbins

Robbins said he never realized how foreign the concept of homeschooling was to many people, and that there were so many preconceived notions about what homeschooling is like.

“A few people were just curious about what it is like to be homeschooled, and I appreciated that,” he said.

He said the entire experience was eye-opening and made him more appreciate homeschooling.

As homeschooled students, much like their peers who attend classes at area schools, time management has been key to balancing assignments and sports.

McVearry said it takes a lot of self-motivation.

“It can be difficult to balance school and other activities sometimes,” she said.

She and Fowler said if they know they had a meet on a day, they would work to make sure their assignments were completed beforehand.

“As long as you manage your time well, there is plenty of time for both sports and school,” McVearry said.

“Athletics seem to help me stay focused and improve my school work,” Robbins said.

He added coaches have emphasized school work comes first.

Robbins said he is considering physically attending school his senior year.

In fact, Fowler has been taking two classes at the high school this year.

As for sports, McVearry said this is the first year she had done cross country, or any sport, with the school.

Fowler played soccer in her youth with the Waldo County YMCA, and began cross country, and track and field, during middle school.

Will Robbins. Photo courtesy of Amy Robbins

Robbins has a more extensive list of sports he’s participated in over the years, including swimming, soccer, outdoor track, baseball, horseback riding, Nordic skiing and tennis. Soccer, swimming and outdoor track Robbins has done as a Belfast school athlete.

After a soccer injury in 2020, he took up cross country, running in one race.

The trio said they run because they love and enjoy it, even if sometimes they do not quite have the desire, on a particular day, to get one foot going in front of the other for a run.

“Although it doesn’t always feel great while I’m running, I always feel great after I finish,” Robbins said.

“I generally feel happier on the days that I run than on those I don’t,” McVearry said.

McVearry said it is fun to see herself improve with running.

“I started running several years ago now, and still really like it. It’s a great way to stay in shape,” Fowler said.

She added she also can run with friends, teammates, and her parents.

Fowler said one of her best races of the season was a meet hosted by Camden Hills in Rockport.

“I was feeling really good that day, and had a great race,” she said.

Fowler said she likes the finish for the Windjammer course because it is on the all-weather track, which allows her a better opportunity to sprint for the finish.

“My time was close to a personal-record, and I got a medal for seventh place,” she said.

Robbins hails a race at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro as his most memorable moment.

“I got a minute-and-a-half personal-record,” he said.

For McVearry, it was the state championship race.

“I was a little nervous before the race because of the mud and rain, but once I got out there, it was super fun,” she said.

She said since it was the last race of the season, she put every bit of energy into the run.

“I was able to run a personal-best time for the season, even though the course wasn’t in the best condition,” she said.

From the trio, Fowler was the only one who had previously qualified for the state championship meet, that as a freshman.

“I was excited to qualify for states again,” she said. “It was really cool to get to go again. It’s a great experience.”

Robbins and McVearry made their first appearance at the state race this fall.

The runners said they realized they had the talent and work ethic to accomplish the goal during regular-season runs.

“I was honestly very surprised that I qualified for the state championship,” McVearry said.

She said she knew it was possible, but did not think her chances were high because it was her first year of cross country. During the regional championship race, on the same course, when her coach told McVearry her place, it hit her she could make it. The top 30 individual runners in the regional race qualify for the states.

“I remember hearing them call our my place and thinking, holy cow, I actually have a shot at qualifying,” she said.

Robbins realized his chance at qualifying during the Medomak Valley race in which he nabbed a course personal-best.

“It was the first time I really considered I had a chance to make states,” he said.

Robbins said he always wanted to qualify for the state championship, and he has looked up to people who did qualify for the race.

“So to do it myself was very exciting,” he said.

Robbins also said, in many ways, running the championship race on the home course for Belfast, was an advantage.

“I knew the course better, so I knew when to speed up or when to slow down, when to conserve energy and when to exert energy,” he said.

He said being on the Lions’ home course made it easier for family and friends to watch.

Fowler and McVearry agreed there was an advantage being on such a familiar course.

“We know the course so well,” Fowler said.

“It’s definitely one of my favorite courses. I have gotten a [personal-record] there the last two seasons, but not this year unfortunately,” she said.

She said she was disappointed the conditions were bad on race day.

“The course was extremely muddy the day of the race, but knowing good places to pass other runners and where to step to avoid the mud was a huge advantage,” McVearry said.

Moving into the winter season, and then spring, the Lion trio plan to compete in indoor and outdoor track and field.