When first they ventured into neighboring New Hampshire for the 2008 New England Cross Country Championships, the girls from Maine weren’t sure what to expect.

Abbey Leonardi of Kennebunk figured top five was a worthy goal.

Emily Durgin of Bonny Eagle had no idea of the competition they would face.

Abby Mace of Maranacook was simply excited to be at Derryfield Park. Top 25? She hoped.

Fiona Hendry of Cheverus was particularly nervous because, unlike the other three freshmen, who had run in national USATF meets in junior high, this was her first big out-of-state event.

Then they were off, joined by 255 other girls from five New England states — excluding Massachusetts, whose state championships run late — on the hilly 5,000-meter course.

“Once the race started, it was just like another race in Maine,” Leonardi said. “I thought there would be a lot more people up with us, or that we would be chasing people.”

Instead, Maine’s four fabulous freshmen finished 1-2-6-9, with Leonardi winning in 18 minutes, 12.7 seconds followed closely by Durgin. Mace won a sprint for sixth with a Connecticut senior. Hendry held off a New Hampshire sophomore for ninth.

“What a day for Maine,” said the state’s distance running standard-bearer, Joan Benoit Samuelson, who was on hand to drape medals around necks of the top 25 finishers.

A state with nary a New England schoolgirl champion suddenly saw four freshmen — from four different schools — finish among the top 10.

Three years later, Maine’s Fab Four are seniors. They have experienced individual and team state titles, another New England crown, the national finals in San Diego. They’ve also endured growth spurts and injuries and, for one, a school transfer.

Now, all four girls are healthy, planning college visits and looking forward to leaving their final footprints on cross-country careers forever intertwined.

“It is, without a doubt,” said Falmouth coach Jorma Kurry, “the greatest class of distance runners ever in Maine.”

Curiously, they’ve all run the same race only once since their dazzling New England debut. Last fall, at the Festival of Champions in Belfast, they swept the top four places, and in the exact same order: Leonardi, Durgin, Mace and Hendry. This year, the New England championships — skipped by Leonardi the past two years so she could concentrate on nationals — are scheduled for Rhode Island.

“I think it would be awesome this year, senior year, if we could all be in the top 10 again,” Durgin said. “It would be sweet to finish up our high school career the way it started.”

Here’s a closer look at the quartet, in reverse order of their original finish:

Hendry — As a freshman, Hendry stood an inch over 5 feet tall. Her first high school winter, she won Class A indoor track titles in the mile and 2-mile. Each fall, she has placed third in Class A behind Leonardi and Durgin.

She’s also sprouted up 6 inches and is nearly 5-8. Such rapid growth resulted in a muscle imbalance in her hips and caused considerable pain, but she helped Cheverus win consecutive state titles in cross-country and twice placed among the top five teams in New England.

For college, she is considering schools in Division I and III. If she could have given her ninth-grade self any advice, “I would probably tell her not to have any self-doubt,” she said. “Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. Just look forward to the future.”

Mace — A two-time Class B state champion in cross-country, Mace also won individual state titles in Nordic skiing and outdoor track — at 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters — for Maranacook, which now competes in Class C in track. By running despite an injury to her left leg last fall, Mace developed an IT band issue in her right knee that nagged her through the winter and spring.

“It was really hard, but I learned a lot of things from my injury,” Mace said. “I learned to train smarter. I wouldn’t stretch after I went running and I would run on the road all the time and I increased my miles too quickly over the summer. So I’m learning a lot about injury prevention, trail running, stretching, icing — taking care of the little things you need to do in running to stay healthy.”

Now healthy, Mace is hoping to break the 18-minute barrier this fall. Although she rarely sees Leonardi, Durgin and Hendry — all SMAA runners — Mace said she feels a special bond with them.

“They’re all really good competitors but they leave it all on the course,” she said. “I think sometimes I’m not as competitive as I’d like to be, so I think they help me thinking about being competitive and staying mentally strong and just running hard.”

Durgin — Before transferring to Cheverus before her sophomore year, Durgin won the Class A 3,200-meter title for Bonny Eagle. She went on to the win the New England cross-country title as a sophomore and reach the Foot Locker nationals. As a junior, she was runner-up in New England.

Like Mace, she endured IT band problems as a junior, then wound up with a bone bruise on her right foot. Now healthy again, she said she has learned to enjoy running for its own sake.

“I feel like when I was a freshman I was already thinking, ‘I have to hit these times. I have to come in these places. Work, work, work. I have to do it right now,”‘ she said. “No. That’s not true. I have the rest of my life to run. I think it would have helped me a lot more if I listened to my body more.”

Leonardi — Currently ranked seventh nationally, Leonardi owns nine individual Class A state titles: three in cross-country and six in outdoor track at distances from 800 to 3,200 meters. In winter, she is a recreational skier. She twice reached the Foot Locker nationals in San Diego, finishing 22nd as a sophomore and 16th as a junior.

Along with handling the college recruitment process — she plans to attend a top Division I program — Leonardi also has her sights set on the course records at Belfast (17:48 by Cassie Hintz of Old Town at the 2004 Eastern Regionals) and Twin Brook (18:06 by New Hampshire’s Georgia Griffith, now at Stanford, at the 2007 New Englands).

Leonardi has run 17:49 and 18:08, respectively. She also plans to bump up her mileage in preparation for collegiate competition next fall.

“I’m excited to move to the next step,” she said, “and hopefully be on a team surrounded by runners who have the same energy.”

Long-distance running can be a lonely pursuit. Because they always had each other, neither Leonardi nor Durgin nor Mace nor Hendry ever had to fret about isolation.

“It’s fun to go through it with other people,” Leonardi said. “It definitely keeps you on your toes, knowing you can’t get too relaxed.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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