High school cross country

Belfast, Troy Howard set to host New England championships

Camden Hills girls state Class A title team to participate
By Mark Haskell | Nov 08, 2017
Video by: Zack Miller of VStv New England cross-country championships preview.

Belfast — Every five years, the top high school cross-country runners converge on the Pine Tree State to participate in the New England championships.

And for the first time in memory, schools from Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine will venture a bit further north — to the Midcoast, to be exact — for the high-profile event.

The 83rd annual New England Interscholastic Cross-Country Championships will be held on Saturday, Nov. 11 at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast. The girls race will begin at 11:30 a.m., with the boys to follow at 12:30 p.m., with approximately 225 runners in each race.

Massachusetts does not compete at the New England level, thus, the other five New England states rotate hosting the event.

The New Englands were held at Twin Brook Recreational Facility in Cumberland in 2012 and 2007, respectively. Prior to that, the event was held at a golf course in Portland, said Belfast coach Jo-Ann Nealey, who called being asked to host the New England event “an honor.”

“We have a great course,” she said. “It’s a fair course and very spectator-friendly.”

Nealey knows full well the extent of the course’s prowess, given her husband Dale Nealey, who himself is the indoor and outdoor track-and-field coach at Belfast, designed the course.

Dale said, “to be able to host a meet of this caliber is pretty exciting.”

“We’ve worked on that course for a lot of years and each year we try to make it a little more improved and a little better,” said Dale. “It’s a great spectator course. You can see the kids nine times with just a little bit of movement. Lots of times with a cross-country course you see them leave and you see them come back and not much during the middle. Our course allows for that.”

“It speaks highly of the amount of work people in Belfast have put into cross country and developing that facility over the years,” said BAHS athletic director Terry Kenniston. “I think certainly it’s gained its reputation by hosting the Festival of Champions and hosting regional and state events.”

Troy Howard Middle School has hosted the Festival of Champions, a high school cross-country event that draws thousands of runners from all over New England and parts of Canada, each year since its inception in 2002 and has seen it grow exponentially in that span of time.

In 2003, Troy Howard hosted its first state championship event. And after a three-year stint with that event being held at Leavitt Area High School in Turner, the state championships then alternated between Troy Howard and Twin Brook.

Kenniston said between hosting the Festival of Champions and Northern regional championships annually and state championship biannually, hosting the New Englands is another high profile event in Belfast's collective cap.

“If you can pull off the Festival of Champions as people in our school have done, anything else seems really small and very manageable,” Kenniston said. “The festival has grown in 15 years from 700 or so runners that first year to up over 2,000 this past fall.”

For the New Englands, individual student-athletes were selected based on the results of state competition with the champion of each class and the next 22 finishers (25 total) as determined by their times in the combined Classes A, B and C invited to represent the state.

Six teams qualify for New England competition. State champions from Classes A, B and C automatically qualify. The state meet then was rescored as one meet with all schools included in the rescoring. The teams, regardless of class, with the best scores, not including the state champions, qualified.

Locally, the Camden Hills girls, who won the state Class A championship, will participate. The Windjammers also finished second as a team at the Festival of Champions, which should give them a real chance to compete for the New England crown.

Dale has put a great deal of work into the course over the past 15-plus years.

“He has volunteered countless hours,” said Kenniston of Dale work on the course. “Upgrading, putting in culverts, widening the trail, putting down stone dust, cutting back trees and limbs.”

“I take a lot of pride in it,” Dale said. “My wife is the cross-country coach and I love cross country. I think it’s a great sport and it’s a passion.”

Many area volunteers help with the bundle of meets at Troy Howard each year, and the New Englands will be no exception.

Jo-Ann said John Cox, Henry Bouchard and Dave Jeffrey — the latter of whom is the meet director for New Englands — all help as well.

“We have a lot of support and it makes the organization and running of the meet doable,” said Dale.

Many volunteers will be on hand to assist in the event — including Belfast boys and girls cross-country team members — and be stationed throughout the course.

“We’ve had so many people willing to volunteer when we put on events,” said Kenniston. “There aren’t many places that have that support from the community to make those kinds of things happen. I think it’s a great honor for cross country and Belfast as a whole to be able to host something of this stature.”

Jo-Ann said other teams that felt they would qualify for the New England’s this year made the effort to participate in the Festival of Champions — when in past years those teams did not — in an effort to become familiar with the course.

Kenniston said that, unlike the Festival of Champions, which this fall showcased seven separate races, the New Englands will not be a daylong event.

“This will be a truly elite field,” he said. “I’ve got to think the races themselves aren’t going to take very long.”

All the boys should finish in 15 to 22 minutes and the girls from 17 to 25 minutes, or there abouts.

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