Last fall, Riley Masters watched as University of Maine cross country teammate Corey Conner qualified for the NCAA championships.

This year, it’s a good chance they’ll both be competing in the biggest race in collegiate cross country, as the Black Bears juniors will be in the running for individual qualifying spots at Saturday’s NCAA qualifying meet at Madison, Conn.

The meet will feature teams and individuals from schools in New England and New York, so Black Bears coach Mark Lech likes the chances that New England champion Conner and America East winner Masters have to advance to the Nov. 22 national championship race in Terre Haute, Ind., thanks to their patient training regimes throughout the fall.

“The whole key to getting better is the consistency of work to get faster, speed doesn’t help you if you’re not strong enough to use it,” Lech said.

The top two team finishers on the men’s and women’s side automatically earn NCAA berths, while the top four individuals not on those schools get in as well.

Masters and Conner will have to be close to the top seven or eight overall to have a shot.

Masters used consistency and tactics to win the America East crown in 24 minutes, 4.47 seconds over 8,000 meters, not falling for a fast start by Boston University’s Eric Ashe, who came in second.

Conner was third in the America East race.

“The BU kid took it out, he knew if he didn’t get rid of Riley in this race early on he wasn’t going to beat him,” said Lech. “He took the pace out quickly and probably committed track and field suicide by taking it out too quick.”

That played into the hands of Masters, also one of the top milers in the country, and the same strategy may be an ideal one this weekend.

“I’ve really got to be patient this weekend, use my speed toward the end of it,” Masters said.

Masters wound up catching Ashe at the 2-mile mark, waited until there was a mile to go, and just took off.

He said his training has been going a lot smoother than last year, when he was riddled by injuries.

“I’m really excited with the way the season’s gone, last year was a huge disappointment, (with) winning the conference championship I’m a lot more confident this year,” Masters said.

Masters is logging roughly 80 miles a week, which is something his body had to adjust to, as he would never log that type of mileage while running at Bangor High School.

That is a similar situation to Conner, who like Masters, is improving with every race in Lech’s eyes.

“If she did 20 miles a week in high school that was a big week for her, physically she’s still catching up to that level of work,” Lech said.

The Black Bears have had a couple weeks of down time since the America East meet on Oct. 30.

“Sometimes it’s a blessing and a curse because sometimes they get out of that racing habit but at the same time if they’ve got a good racing head, it doesn’t bother them,” Lech said.

Masters certainly has that.

“It’s really going to come down to just hanging in there and trying to get one of those top level spots,” he said. “It really depends on how well the kids from Providence, Syracuse and Dartmouth do.”

Dartmouth, which is one of the top teams in the men’s field, features a pair of Maine natives in Corey DeWitt of Ellsworth and Will Geoghegan of Brunswick.

Masters, who qualified for the NCAA championships on the track both indoors and outdoors last year, wants to prove that he’s not just a talent in the short distances.

“I’ve already proved myself on the track and I want to prove myself as a cross country runner as well,” he said. “That’s really the big goal, put it out there that I’m kind of a threat at any given distance.

NE championships Saturday

Some of Maine’s best high school cross country teams and individuals will head to Thetford, Vt., this weekend for the New England Interscholastic Championships.

Two local teams will be represented on the girls’ side in John Bapst of Bangor and Mount Desert Island.

The Crusaders automatically qualified by virtue of their Class B state championship while MDI got in when Class C state champion Merriconeag-Waldorf of New Gloucester elected not to compete.

Other girls teams competing will be Cheverus of Portland, Mount Ararat of Topsham, Massabesic of Waterboro and Cape Elizabeth.

Eastern Maine will be represented by Class B state champion Dacie Manion of Old Town, Class C gold medalist Carsyn Koch of Washburn, along with Brittany Bowman of Camden Hills of Rockport, Aleta Looker of Ellsworth and Alecia Palmer of Presque Isle.

On the boys side, Caribou, which won its first Class B state championship in more than 60 years, is the lone Eastern Maine squad that qualified as a team.

The other qualifying teams are Scarborough, Mount Ararat, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth and North Yarmouth Academy.

Plenty of standouts will represent Eastern Maine, including Dan Curts of Ellsworth, Alex Bulteel of Orono and Hampden Academy’s Evan Piccirillo.

Ryan McLaughlin

BDN sports reporter Ryan McLaughlin grew up in Brewer and is a lifelong fan of the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins. In "The Boston Blitz" he'll be sharing his perspective...