There will be plenty of team and individual confrontations in Belfast this weekend as 66 schools and more than 1,300 high school athletes will converge on Troy Howard Middle School’s 3.1-mile course for the ninth Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions.

The first race will start at 11:30 a.m. The seeded boys race goes off at 2:15 p.m., followed by the seeded girls at 2:50 p.m.

The meet brings together teams from not just Maine, but from other New England states and Canada, as Dr. JH Gillis High School of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, is returning for the second year in a row. Also, teams from Cumberland, R.I., and Canton, Conn., will participate.

“That’s the great thing about Festival of Champions. I know we always look forward to it, just about the fact it’s the largest sporting event in one day in the state of Maine,” said John Bapst of Bangor coach Joe Capehart, whose girls team will be a contender for a top-five finish. “It’s really exciting to watch all those races.”

The girls’ seeded race will be one of the most riveting of the day as that one will feature four of the state’s top runners in Abbey Leonardi of Kennebunk, Cheverus of Portland teammates Emily Durgin and Fiona Hendry, and Abby Mace of Maranacook in Readfield.

Leonardi, a junior who ran in the Foot Locker Nationals last fall, appears primed to not only take down Erica Jesseman’s meet record of 18 minutes, 25.99 seconds, but Cassie Hintz’s Belfast course record of 17:52.60.

Leonardi, who is featured in the October issue of Running Times Magazine, is seeded at 17:50 and will be pushed by Durgin, another 2009 Foot Locker finalist who cruised to the individual crown last fall.

That type of competition means great things for Eastern Maine standouts such as Dacie Manion of Old Town, who has yet to lose a race this fall and will be seeking a personal-best this weekend.

“That’s my favorite race of the year.  I’m really looking forward to it,” Manion said after winning the Sectional Invitational in Old Town last weekend. “I get to run against some amazing runners.”

Such as Leonardi, whom Capehart thinks will smash the aforementioned records if she gets an ideal day to run and the course conditions — which usually hold up beautifully — stay dry.

“Leonardi’s a great runner, a great role model for boys and girls athletes as far as how she goes about her job as a runner,” he said.

Especially for runners like Manion, who said that FOC is kind of like a mirror image of the New England championships, for which she qualified a year ago.

“I kind of talk about New England’s where every girl comes in within a second of the girl in front of her and behind her, so you always have somebody to push you,” said Manion, Eastern Maine Class B’s top individual in 2009. “Festival’s a lot like that, so I think I can run better because I’ll have people to push me the whole way.”

More importantly for runners and coaches alike, this meet also gives them a great chance to see where teams and top individuals are at from a physical standpoint, although a lot of teams are nowhere near tapering for championship meets yet.

“It gives you a good idea a little bit how people can deal with a little bit of extra incentive, a little bit of extra pressure,” said Caribou boys coach Roy Alden, whose Vikings have won the last two Eastern Maine titles. “It’s just a neat experience.”

Alden also likes the fact that his kids can run on the same course that will be used for regional and state championship meets later this fall, and against teams from other conferences, like Hampden in Caribou’s case, that they’ll be facing in regionals.

“We see some downstate teams we don’t usually see, which is nice,” Alden said. “[Brewer] coach [Glendon] Rand does an unbelievable job of putting it all together. It’s kind of a neat experience.”

Manion and Presque Isle’s Alecia Palmer will contend for top-10 individual finishes on the girls side while John Bapst should be among the top teams, with Cheverus the favorite.

Messalonskee of Oakland’s Harlow Ladd and Edward Little of Auburn’s Faisal Noor are shaping up to be the top boys’ individuals, while Christian Sleeper of Caribou, Dan Curts of Ellsworth and Evan Piccirillo of Hampden also look strong.

Team-wise, the Scarborough boys, who have been atop the polls all season, are looming as the favorites.

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Ryan McLaughlin

BDN sports freelancer Ryan McLaughlin grew up in Brewer and is a lifelong fan of the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins.