Retired Belfast Area High School track and field coach Dale Nealey (right) and his wife Jo-Ann, who remains the Lions' cross country coach. Credit: Courtesy of Dale Nealey

Dale Nealey doesn’t come across as the retiring type.

Even when he’s not teaching science at Belfast Area High School, the 57-year-old Northport resident is always busy.

He’s built numerous homes over the years. He also created — and for many years maintained — one of the state’s iconic cross country courses. And he coached the BAHS track and field program for 33 years.

And that’s just the top of the to-do list.

“He’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever met,” said former Brewer High School track coach Dave Jeffrey. “You can’t believe the number of things he’s got his hands in. I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as he does.”

Nealey now has another house to build for one of his two daughters, and with the next generation of his family rapidly expanding he’s opted to retire from coaching.

“I have three grandchildren, two that are just a few weeks old and another that’s 17 months old, and my daughter’s moving back to the area with two of them and the other one doesn’t live far away. It’s time for me to spend more time with them,” he said.

Track and field has figured prominently in Nealey’s life since he competed in the sport before graduating from Belfast in 1982.

After three years in the Army, he went to the University of Maine where he competed in track, then started coaching back in Belfast in 1989 even before he graduated from college.

Nealey began as the Lions’ boys outdoor track coach, then added the girls team after John Cox retired from that post. He also volunteered for many years as coach of the school’s indoor track club team, then remained the coach when it was elevated to varsity status.

“Athletics have done a lot for me personally and I wanted to be able to give back,” he said. “I always thought I’d like to be a coach while I was in the Army and while I was going through college.”

Nealey led Belfast to Class B boys’ state championships in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2004, and the Lions have remained consistent postseason threats. At this year’s state meet, the Belfast girls placed third among 27 schools while the boys finished fourth among 24 teams, with the Lions  also capturing five individual championships.

“He just knows the sport,” Belfast rising senior Drew Abelon said. “He’s got advice for literally every single person on the team. Sprinters, jumpers, throwers, all of it, he just knows the sport real well and he’s really good at demonstrating and showing us how to get better.”

Nealey also has been a relentless recruiter, which led to strong participation numbers from year to year.

“Dale builds a program where kids feel included, and it’s not just about track, it’s about everything,” Jeffrey said. “When you’re in a program where you feel included, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the best or the worst, you feel part of a team. He loves the sport and is able to identify kids and also puts them in their best place.”

Abelon, a sprinter as a freshman at Belfast before the coronavirus wiped out the 2020 season, was introduced to the long jump by Nealey this spring. Not only did he win states with a leap of 22 feet, 9 1/2 inches, but his performance eclipsed a 39-year-old school record.

Nealey’s teams also are well known for the pole vault, with numerous state title winners including his son Drew, a three-time state champion outdoors and a two-time indoor champion at Belfast who went on to win the decathlon at this year’s New England championships as a senior at the University of Rhode Island.

And when Lia Frazee won the girls’ pole vault at this year’s Class B state meet, her best of 11 feet, 6 inches topped the previous state-meet mark set in 2005 by yet another Belfast pole vaulter, Bryna Harrington.

“As far as the technical events, Dale is just amazing with what he can do with kids,” said his wife Jo-Ann Nealey, Belfast’s cross country coach and an assistant coach with her husband for more than two decades, though she also is stepping away from the track program.

“Once we were at a track meet at the University of Maine and our son Drew was competing. I was sitting in the stands between events and heard this girl in front of me say, ‘Belfast always has real good pole vaulters, they must have a really good coach.’”

At least part of Dale Nealey’s athletic legacy in Belfast will be his work during the late 1990s to build the 3.1-mile course at the Troy A. Howard Middle School that is the Lions’ cross country base as well as a regular stop for state and regional meets.

The site also hosted the 2017 New England championships and this October will be home to the 20th annual Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions, an event hosted by Belfast and Brewer high schools that in a normal year attracts 1,800 runners from Maine and beyond.

When Nealey began working on the 90-acre plot of land next to the middle school to create the course, attracting big meets to Belfast was on his mind.

“I thought it would be really cool to be able to have a state meet at Belfast so I started building the course,” he said. “Because of the possibilities that the land had I thought it could be a really good course, so I took an excavator in and ditched the sides and Dave Jeffrey came down and we walked the course and laid it out and started building it.”

The goal was not only to provide a fast course with plenty of room for the runners, but also to make it spectator-friendly.

“My frustration with cross country is with so many courses you see the kids leave and then you see them come back and that’s it,” Nealey said. “When we designed it, I wanted to lay it out so you’d have multiple opportunities to see the athletes run by you. I think that adds to the excitement for the spectators and the athletes.”

Look for Nealey not to completely leave the track and running scene.

He’ll continue to help out at the Festival of Champions and other events, and if his son ever decides to return to the midcoast and coach track he won’t have to look far for an assistant.

In the meantime, there are grandchildren to enjoy and another house to build.

“Giving up coaching for some people would be really difficult because their whole life is involved in it, but he has so many other irons in the fire that he’s just going to go on and do other things. That’s just the way he is,” Jeffrey said.

“We’ll miss him, because he was really good for the sport.”

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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...