Former longtime Hampden Academy cross country coach Dick Balentine had the school's running course named in his honor Friday afternoon. Credit: Ernie Clark

HAMPDEN, Maine — It’s part field — sun-splashed on this day by a cloudless sky — part forest trail, that soon will attract runners and walkers of all ages with its promise of brilliant fall foliage.

For Dick Balentine, the cross-country course at Reeds Brook Middle School served as a classroom of sorts for 38 years as he mentored hundreds of Hampden Academy student-athletes. It ranged from the novice stages of distance running to championship contention and eventually a lifelong fitness pursuit.

That course now bears Balentine’s name after the retired coach was honored by school officials and current cross-country runners during a dedication ceremony before a recent multischool meet.

“What I’ve seen from Mr. Balentine over the last few years is the ability to connect with students on a daily basis,” Hampden Academy principal William Tracy said. “No one comes into this business thinking, ‘I want to leave a legacy.’ They just think, ‘I want to make an impact.’ What we saw over 41 years [in education] from Mr. Balentine was that he left a legacy with his players and students.”

That legacy included 12 conference titles, eight regional crowns and the 2003 Class A girls state championship with a team that included his younger daughter, Molly. Those successes were built on a foundation that began with a roster of just four runners when Balentine conducted his first practice with the Hampden Academy cross-country program in 1979.

But to Balentine, who retired from coaching in 2016 and from his work as a science teacher in the district last spring, such achievements were merely part of his coaching journey.

“When you come out of college you’re gung-ho because you want to win,” said Balentine, who was joined during the dedication ceremony by his wife Robin, older daughter Leah, her husband Ben Smith and two granddaughters. “I can remember how it took a few years to build a program before we won something, and then all of a sudden I had the moment when, ‘Wow, it’s a lot more than that.’

“It’s about the relationships. Having all the kids feel comfortable from freshmen all the way up through the seniors, and watching kids who couldn’t even run a half-mile their first day of practice grow up through JV to varsity. And hearing from some of them now that they’re still running, they’re running marathons, they’re staying in shape and it all started at HAXC. Those are the important things.”

Balentine grew up in Topsfield, Massachusetts, and ran cross-country and track, and played basketball at Masconomet Regional High School in neighboring Boxford, Massachusetts.

He went on to the University of Maine, where he ran cross-country and track for two years before stepping away from the sports to focus on academics.

“Looking back now as a 63-year-old I wish I had run all four years,” Balentine said, “but at the time I was a biology major and had labs, and had gone from running cross-country and playing basketball and running track [in high school] to running all three seasons [in college], and I just got tired of it.”

But as Balentine spent more time on his studies, those efforts expanded to include courses in education and coaching with a possible eye toward what soon became his career calling.

“As I studied biology one of the things in the back of my mind was that I really enjoyed athletics,” Balentine said. “I enjoyed the students enough so that if I decided not to go to graduate school to do something with biology, maybe I’d try teaching.”

That’s what coaching has been to Balentine ever since then, teaching a sport.

“There are a lot of similarities [between teaching and coaching],” said Balentine, who student-taught seventh-grade science in Hampden and then was hired by the same school district soon after his graduation from UMaine. “That’s one of the sad things about today is that a lot of our coaches aren’t in the schools anymore because coaching really is an extension of the classroom.

“The best relationships I’ve been able to form with students are the ones I not only had in class but I coached. This is just an outdoor classroom as far as I’m concerned.”

Now that classroom has a name.

“Coach Balentine and his teams established an impressive standard of success at Hampden Academy,” said Fred Lower, Hampden Academy athletic administrator.

“But more importantly he had a impact on countless young people who went on in life to utilize the mentoring and guidance he provided them.”

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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...