Abbott Valentine of Hampden Academy (left) runs three abreast with Gordon Doore (center) and Daniel McCarthy of Bangor High School during Saturday's 19th Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions in Belfast. Valentine ran to the individual title, while Bangor picked up the team victory. (Glendon Rand Photo)

BELFAST, Maine — The Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions usually represents a key test for high school runners and their teams as they prepare for looming postseason events.

The 19th annual festival held Saturday featured a vastly different backdrop.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic limited the boys field to a fraction of its size from a year ago, when more than 1,600 boys and girls runners from 75 schools competed in seven different races held as part of the meet.

And while the cross country season has just a month remaining if there is a state championship meet, it’s barely more than a week old after the start was delayed while state agencies determined whether or not to have fall sports at all.

Favored Bangor High School may not have been in midseason form, but the Rams still captured the boys team title for the first time after placing three runners among the top five finishers Saturday at the Troy Howard Middle School.

“Usually this would have been our sixth race of the season rather than our second,” said Bangor senior Gordon Doore, whose team was the runner-up here in 2018 and third last year. “It takes a few races to get your feet under you to understand how to race again and how to run cross country because it’s just so different from everything else like track or even road racing.

“It’s a little frustrating that this is only our second race of the season, but I’m glad we’re out here because the alternative is nothing.”

Junior Daniel McCarthy paced the Rams with a second-place effort while Doore was third and junior Fritz Oldenburg produced a personal-best time for the 3.1-mile distance to finish fifth.

Junior Simon Socolow finished 17th and Gavin Sychterz was 18th to help Bangor finish with 45 points.

Hampden Academy, sparked by individual champion Abbott Valentine, was second with 66 points while Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor (73 points), Orono (129) and Brewer (262) completed the top five.

“It’s a good reality check for us,” said Bangor coach Roger Huber, whose team finished second at the 2019 Class A state meet. “We’re going to sit down and digest the race, and we’ve got some things to work on.”

State mass-gathering mandates related to the COVID-19 pandemic limited total attendance at this year’s race to 100 people — including runners, coaches and race officials.

That left room for only 10 teams — all of which had participated in the 18 previous festivals.

Sixty-six runners comprised the field and were divided into two waves to allow for social distancing at the starting line.

While the boys were competing, girls teams from the participating schools — which also included George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill, Belfast, Old Town, Bucksport and Ellsworth — were preparing at Belfast Area High School for their meet in order for the race site to to keep within the 100-person limit.

“It was a fantastic effort by the Brewer coach [and event director Glendon Rand] to set all this up,” McCarthy said. “It’s always something that everyone looks forward to throughout the entire year. It’s always fast and fun and exciting. Obviously without all the people here it’s not quite the same but it’s much appreciated by everyone.”

Valentine, a junior who placed 16th at last year’s festival with a time of 16:32.51, took the lead from Doore a little more than two miles into this year’s race and churned out a winning time of 16:05.37.

“I definitely felt like I was ready for a good race today,” said Valentine, who ran a 5:08 first mile and averaged 5.10.8 per mile throughout the race. “Because of COVID I had a lot more time to train for cross country because outdoor track was canceled last spring and I was able to get a lot more training in. I felt a lot stronger this year.”

McCarthy, competing in his first race of the season, placed second at the Festival of Champions for the second straight year. This year’s time was 16:12.21, well off his 2019 clocking of 15:41.72.

Doore was next in 16:22.51, followed by MDI senior Ponce Saltysiak (16:49.02) and Oldenburg, who broke 17 minutes for the first time at the distance with a 16:57.89 effort.

Rounding out the top 10 were Hampden sophomore Charlie Collins (17:17.04), Belfast junior Miles Cannon (17:22.49), Orono junior Kyle McLellan (17:24.39), Bucksport freshman William Hileman (17:24.76) and Orono senior Thorin Saucier (17:43.62).

Hampden freshman Harrison Shain was 11th in 17:45.58.

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...