It should be an excellent year for talent on Maryland girls cross country teams.

"This will probably be the most competitive girls state we've ever had, and the individual race will have little bearing on the team race," Al Ballman, Kennedy High School coach, said.

So deep is the talent that in Classes A and AA, the races for individual state champion may involve as many 15 runners.

Montgomery County has three state champions returning to defend titles: Woodward's Cindy Kearns in Class B, Kennedy's Beth Jacobson in Class A and Springbrook's Betsy Schmid in Class AA.

Last year, as a junior, Kearns had the third all-time best clocking on Hereford's 2.5-mile course. This fall, according to her coach, Greg Dunston, she is in even better shape.

"Cindy's been putting in good mileage this summer, not just running but swimming and biking, as well," said Dunston. "For the past two years, we've been bringing her along slowly, never really putting her in competition people expect her to run against. Now she's got to move and run up and learn to handle the pressure of the seeded races."

Woodward will have to contend with Atholton and Glenelg, which is no easy task. Atholton, the defending Howard County and district champion the past two years, has a group of four veterans returning.

Glenelg is led by junior outdoor two-mile champion Karen Scott.

Williamsport's girls team, the only team in the state with a four-year win streak, is the one to watch in Class B. Five of the top seven scorers return from last year's championship squad.

Jacobson will face a much tougher field at Hereford this year as a junior and, according to Bellman, will be hard-pressed to repeat last year's performance.

"To win a state championship, you've got to be just infinitely better or everything goes right," he said. "And with as many girls that are back in our class, we've got to have a phenomenal amount of luck; we can't plan on it."

Senior teammate Maureen Conroy, the indoor two-mile champion who was a surprising runner-up behind Jacobson last year at Hereford, returns as second runner on a team that many feel may be a dark horse in the Class A team race.

Also expected to be contenders for state honors are Wheaton junior Kristine Ogle, whose speed brought her the outdoor mile title last spring; senior Elaine Patterson of McDonough, who won the state cross country title as a sophomore and whose team has a good shot at the title; Overlea's Carol Monoghan, and a Sherwood freshman, Beth Hanlon.

Only two of the top 12 finishers in last year's AA race have graduated. State champion Schmid from Springbrook returns, as does runner-up Kathy Raisbeck of High Point, whom Schmid has been unable to beat since their confrontation last November.

Cathy Ellis of Crossland and teammate Jenny Marks finished third and fifth, respectively, last year and will lead a well-rounded team many expect to repeat as AA champions. Coach Bill Smith is a little more cautious, saying, "We've been up there so many years, it's hard to stay there. We're not as strong as last year."

Major obstacles in Crossland's path to the team championship are Dulaney and Westminster, last year's second- and third-place finishers, respectively. As well as returning their No. 1 runners, Carol Duffy for Dulaney and Melanie Lufru for Westminster, both of whom finished in the top 12, each team fields a solid top three.

Severna Park's tightly grouped top four runners make the team a contender. The problem is finding a fifth competitor.

In boys competition, Old Mill and Dulaney of Baltimore County are expected to be the standouts in AA. Old Mill brings back its top nine runners, including state third-place finisher Mike Beam. Since Westminster's Steve Kartalia and High Point's Bob Shillinger have graduated, Beam emerges as the one to beat.

Paul Russo, Dulaney's top runner, returns, as do a number of experienced competitors.

Peary's boys, last year's Class A champions, are facing a rebuilding year, according to Coach Terry Kilpatrick, their top three having graduated. Loch Raven, therefore, hopes to improve on last year's runner-up finish. Loch Raven is led by state fourth-place finisher Richard Shinnick.

Individually, Blair's Lance Fletcher, Whitman's Kris Herdt, Kenwood's Sean Buettner are expected to be top competitors for the AA state title. Sherwood's Joe McGirr faces Shinnick in A. Hereford's Tim Wright has a good shot in Class B, as does Mike Jankiewiez of Sparrow's Point in Class C.