The high school cross country state championships return Saturday after a year’s absence due to COVID-19.
For Daniel McCarthy of Bangor and Abbott Valentine of Hampden Academy, the Class A boys race will be the latest — and perhaps final — edition of a competitive rivalry that has brought out the best in each other.
Their battle, scheduled for 1 p.m. on the relatively flat 3.1-mile course at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, will be the fourth of six races that will crown individual and team state champions in Classes A, B and C.
The races begin with the Class C girls at 11 a.m., followed by the Class C boys at 11:40, the Class A girls at 12:20 p.m., the Class A boys and finally the Class B girls at 1:40 and the Class B boys at 2:20.
McCarthy and Valentine both have had their time in the limelight while progressing from ranking among the state’s top freshman runners to 2018 to now being among the favorites to capture their first individual cross country state title as seniors.
“It’s definitely been great to have someone who I can be pushing and pacing myself against,” Valentine said. “We’ve both had our up and down years. Last year Dan was injured and wasn’t as strong and it’s great to have him back in full force this year.”
Both Valentine and McCarthy come into states off recent victories. Valentine captured the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship in Augusta two weeks ago, then McCarthy surged past Valentine and senior Grady Satterfield of Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham last Saturday to capture the Class A North title on the Belfast course.
“I know it’s a very friendly rivalry,” Bangor cross country coach Roger Huber said. “There’s a great deal of respect between both runners. Dan knows how good Abbott is and I expect Abbott knows how good Dan is, and this season in particular they have made each other better runners.”
This will be the second time the runners have raced in Belfast this fall, with McCarthy topping Valentine by 10 seconds to win the Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions on Oct. 2 in 15 minutes, 34.24 seconds. That reversed their finish at the 2020 FOC, which Valentine won by 7 seconds.
Valentine got a measure of revenge on the hillier Cony High School course at the KVACs on Oct. 16, edging McCarthy by 3.4 seconds with his winning time of 16:11.
McCarthy responded at the North regional with a different running strategy. Instead of taking the early lead, he followed Valentine and Satterfield until unleashing a strong kick over the final half-mile to win in a personal-best time for the distance of 15:25.13.
That marked the fourth-fastest run in the more than 20-year history of the Belfast course.
“Abbott ran a beautiful race at KVACs, just a great race, so Dan adjusted appropriately and probably found it much easier to race that way than to go out and lead,” Huber said. “I think Daniel has had to change his race plan late in the season because Abbott was doing such a nice job of catching up to him and reeling him in.”
Valentine’s runner-up finish in 15:33.02 was the eighth-fastest time in course history while Satterfield’s third-place 15:47.84 effort was 28th fastest among the thousands of runners who have crossed the Belfast finish line over the years.
“Usually this season I’ve just been going out and holding on,” said McCarthy, who plans to continue his running career at Georgetown University next fall. “But states are the big one so I figured if I was going to try anything new I’d try it [at regionals].’
McCarthy, Valentine and Satterfield — who missed the KVACs due to illness — all are expected to figure prominently again Saturday along with the top finishers from last week’s South regional led by race winner Zachary Berry of Scarborough.
“I think the [KVAC] course was suited to my strength with the hills, but Dan’s better on the flat ground and track,” Valentine said. “This [Belfast] course is all Dan’s and I’ve got to run an airtight race if I’m going to beat him. It’s also going to be interesting to see what happens with Grady coming back from being sick.”
Tenuous weather conditions could play a role at Saturday’s state championships, but if predicted weekend rain holds off more personal bests could be in the offing as McCarthy, Valentine and Satterfield push each other toward the finish line one last time.
“I’ve been racing them since freshman year, and any one of us could win [this] weekend,” McCarthy said. “There will be a lot of good runners, and it’s just who has a good day, who’s feeling good and who wants it more. It will be a good end to the year.”