BELFAST — The starting gun was maybe 10 minutes away from going off, and hundreds of spectators, coaches and runners were congregating at the top of a small hill 100 yards away from the starting line, wanting to catch a glimpse of two of the nation’s best schoolgirl cross country runners.
That atmosphere permeated the Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions at Troy Howard Middle School on Saturday, with 2009 Foot Locker National Championships qualifiers Abbey Leonardi of Kennebunk and Emily Durgin of Cheverus of Portland both in the field.
The juniors, who are good friends off the course, didn’t disappoint, as they both bested the meet record while Leonardi narrowly missed the course record, blasting the 3.1-mile course in 17 minutes, 58.4 seconds under picture-perfect blue skies.
Durgin was timed in 18:21.9 in finishing second. The old meet record was 18:25.99, set by Erica Jesseman in 2006, while Cassie Hintz’s 2004 course record of 17:52.60 will hold up for at least 30 more days, as Leonardi will have another crack at it at the Class A state meet here on Oct. 30.
Both runners set a blistering pace, going through the first mile in 5:28, while Leonardi gradually opened up her lead at the 2-mile mark, clocking an 11:26 split, but Leonardi lost a little bit of speed on an up-and-down section known as the “camel humps” with just over a half-mile to go.
“I felt pretty good,” said Leonardi, who added that she feels even stronger than last year.
Durgin, who was joined in the overall top 10 by teammates Hendry in fourth and Shannon Conley, who won the freshman race, in seventh, ran what she called a consistent race in leading her Stags to their second straight FOC team victory.
“The first mile went out a little fast but I was feeling fine,” said Durgin.
Cheverus, the state’s top-ranked team, showed why in compiling a whopping 74 points while John Bapst of Bangor scored 196 points to finish a distant second.
Massabesic of Waterboro took third among 46 girls scoring squads with 209 points, and was followed in the top 10 by Falmouth (244), Bonny Eagle of Buxton (270), Dr. J.H. Gillis High of Nova Scotia (315), Mt. Blue of Farmington (322), Yarmouth (327), Scarborough (340) and Caribou (351).
In the boys race, Madison junior Matt McClintock won the individual title while Scarborough wound up taking its third straight team title with 133 points, while Falmouth was second among 55 scoring teams with 181, followed by J.H. Gillis with 187.
After the starting gun was fired signaling the start of the highly-anticipated girls race, the same spectators, coaches and fellow runners darted toward the first mile, and later the second, eager to see if Leonardi was on record pace.
She was, thanks to a Belfast course that held up significantly well after absorbing Friday’s rain. Leonardi and Durgin noticed very few wet spots.
“It could’ve been a lot worse,” Leonardi said.
“Here they always have those sharp corners that are always really slippery, but today was a lot better than last year,” Durgin said. “There were a few [wet] spots, but nothing major.”
Abby Mace of Maranacook, another member of Maine’s talented junior class, finished third in 18:56.5 while Dacie Manion of Old Town finished a strong fifth, clocking in at 19:19.9, while other Eastern Maine runners in the top 10 were Camden Hills of Rockport’s Brittany Bowman in ninth and Adrienne Carmack of John Bapst in 10th.
McClintock won a well-contested boys race, overtaking Messalonskee of Oakland’s Harlow Ladd and Chase Brown of Boothbay in the final mile.
McClintock posted a time of 16:06.1 while Ladd took second in 16:11.2 and Brown third in 16:12.5.
When McClintock handicapped the pack before the race, he figured it would be himself and Ladd, but Brown wound up running a strong race.
“That’s the best he’s ever run, I think,” McClintock said. “We were trying to figure the pack and it was a little different than I expected. I didn’t expect Chase to have the race he did.”
Scarborough wound up taking its third straight team title with 133 points, while Falmouth was second among 55 scoring teams with 181, followed by J.H. Gillis with 187.
Caribou finished a strong fourth with 232 points, while Canton, Conn., (267), Cape Elizabeth (294), Cumberland, R.I. (323), Massabesic (335), Mt. Blue (346) and Hampden Academy (359) rounded out the top 10.
The individual race was a thrash throughout, with McClintock holding a short lead over Ladd and Brown together through a mile, which they blazed through in the low 4:50-range, while McClintock started to stretch things out a bit once he hit the two-mile.
McClintock doesn’t normally see the competition running in Western Maine Class C that he did Saturday, so having Ladd and Brown on his shoulder paid dividends.
“I think it was more of a help that I got to run with the competition that I did as opposed to running on my own,” said McClintock.
In the team ranks, two-time defending Eastern Maine Class B champion Caribou put together a strong effort, led by senior Christian Sleeper in 14th place while Caleb Chapman was 33rd and D.J. Flynn 39th, followed by Jesse Sandstrom in 66th and Ryan Washington, who was seventh among freshmen, 81st overall.
“Jesse Sandstrom is one of the kids whose put in as much mileage of any of them all year and he finally had a breakthrough race,” said Vikings coach Roy Alden. “Ryan had a good race in the freshman race.”
Sleeper also rebounded somewhat from a disappointing effort at the Sectional meet last weekend in Old Town.
“He was able to go out faster than he has in the past and hold it pretty well,” Alden said.
Eastern Maine’s other top individuals were Dan Curts of Ellsworth in eighth and Hampden’s Evan Piccirillo in 15th.
The meet featured 65 schools and nearly 1,300 runners, and provided an excellent chance to run on the state meet course.
“Right now we have 30 days until states, so we haven’t nearly peaked yet,” Durgin said.