The best high school runners from five states will gather Saturday at Derryfield Park in Manchester, New Hampshire, for the 84th New England cross country championship meet.

Sophomores Sofie Matson of Falmouth and Lila Gaudrault of Cape Elizabeth are among the favorites in the girls’ race. Lisandro Berry-Gaviria, a junior from Mt. Ararat in Topsham, is likely to be the fastest boy from Maine.

Last year, Matson placed 10th at New Englands, an impressive feat for a ninth grader. Over the past nine years, only seven freshmen (four girls, three boys) managed a top-10 finish.

But 10 years ago?

Maine girls rocked.

At Derryfield in 2008, Abbey Leonardi, then a freshman at Kennebunk, became Maine’s first schoolgirl to win the New England title by holding off classmate Emily Durgin of Bonny Eagle in 18 minutes, 12.7 seconds over the hilly 5-kilometer course. Another 14 seconds separated Durgin from the rest of a field of 259.

Two more ninth graders, Abby Mace of Maranacook and Fiona Hendry of Cheverus, placed sixth and ninth, respectively.

“It was pretty impressive,” said George Mendros, in his fourth decade as a track and field coach at Thornton Academy. “Most of us had an idea that top performances were possible from that group, but I doubt anyone believed they would do that well.”

Maine’s Olympic marathon gold medalist, Joan Benoit Samuelson, was at the meet because of her connection to the Freeport High team. Organizers asked her to present medals.

“That was really cool,” Leonardi said. “I remember she sent me a (handwritten) note to the school, which was awesome. I still have it in my desk.”

All four went on to run for Division I college programs.

“What a day for Maine,” Samuelson said at the time. “Abbey ran a very strong race, but I was very impressed with the Maine showing overall.”

So where are they now?

Hendry helped lead Cheverus to three consecutive state titles in cross country, from 2009-11. At New Englands, she placed 13th as a sophomore, 44th as a junior and eighth as a senior.

For college, she started at Haverford, a Division III school near Philadelphia, and earned all-America status by placing 23rd at the national championships.

“I wanted more of a challenge, or so I thought, and transferred to Syracuse my sophomore year,” she said. “It was much more challenging and much more pressurized. I wish I could have had more fun with it, but you know, I learned a lot about myself there.”

Hendry, who grew up in South Portland, had a few good races for Syracuse but dealt with anemia and plantar fasciitis. She majored in physical therapy, but discovered a love for speech language pathology. After working two years at Yarmouth High in special ed, she enrolled in a master’s degree program at the University of Maine in communications sciences and disorders. She plans to become a speech language pathologist.

As for running, “it’s definitely still part of my life,” said Hendry, 24, “but school and work have totally taken over my life, which is OK now.”

Growing up in Readfield and competing in Class B, Mace didn’t see as much of the other three, all of whom ran in the SMAA and Class A. She also turned to Nordic skiing in winter instead of indoor track, and was the 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram Skier of the Year.

At New Englands, she placed 10th as a sophomore, missed her junior year because of injury and was seventh as a senior.

At the University of Connecticut, Mace majored in journalism and communications and ran cross country, indoor and outdoor track. An infection in the spring of her senior year ended her collegiate career.

“It was a lot to run in college all three seasons,” said Mace, 24, who now lives in West Hartford and works for Pratt & Whitney, where she provides content for social media and writes scripts for company videos. “But it was such a positive experience.”

Mace is working on an MBA from the University of Hartford. She exercises five days a week, mixing yoga with weight lifting, circuit training, cardio machines and spin classes. She also runs, and last month finished sixth in her age group at the Hartford Half Marathon, in 1:33:44.

“I still have a great relationship with running,” she said, “but now it’s all on my own time.”

After a year at Bonny Eagle in her hometown of Standish, Durgin transferred to Cheverus, where she and Hendry paved the way for a three-year Class A title run in cross country. As a sophomore, she won the New England title in Manchester, Connecticut. She was second in Vermont in 2010 and third in Rhode Island in 2011.

Like Mace, she went to UConn and had the same double major of journalism and communications. She was a nine-time American Athletic Conference champion for the Huskies and won the 10,000 meters at the 2017 Penn Relays.

These days, she runs professionally for Team New Balance Boston.

“It’s been great,” she said. “I love the group I’m with. In one year, the improvements have been outstanding, definitely making me want to continue with it.”

Durgin, 24, won the Beach to Beacon Maine women’s category in 2017 and placed 10th overall in 2018. She followed that with seventh place at the Falmouth Road Race in Massachusetts. Last weekend, she was sixth in the USATF 5K championship, held in Manhattan the day before the New York City Marathon. Next up is the Manchester Road Race in Connecticut on Thanksgiving.

Following altitude training in Arizona, Durgin will run in the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee, Florida. A top-five finish would qualify her for the world championships.

The 2008 title marked the only time Abbey Leonardi ran New Englands. Instead, she rested for the Foot Locker Northeast Regionals the next three years, qualifying each time for the nationals in San Diego (along with Durgin in 2009).

Leonardi continued her career at the University of Oregon, and the Ducks won a national title her first season on campus. A nagging hip injury plagued the rest of her collegiate career.

“Definitely not what I had planned for or expected in terms of being able to compete,” she said, “but I’m very happy and grateful I got to focus on the academic side of school.”

Leonardi, 24, joined the Environmental Leadership Program at Oregon and currently works as a lab technician in Saco while living in Kennebunkport. She plans on grad school and is considering becoming a teacher. As for running, she can do about 10 minutes before her hip flares up. She misses it, but also enjoyed downhill skiing last winter.

“I think that was a really cool time for all of us,” she said of the 2008 New England meet. “We all had unique strengths in how we raced, and it pushed us all to be better.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or:

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