Daniel McCarthy remembers debuting at the Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions in 2018 as much for his initial impressions as for his finish at the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast.
It’s a memory made more vivid by what he didn’t see a year ago, when the event was severely reduced in size due to COVID-19.
“When I was a freshman coming in with my teammates for the first time and it was my first season ever running cross country, we got here and I saw all the buses in the parking lot. It was a giant parking lot of yellow and I thought, ‘This is going to be quite the event,’” he recalled Saturday.
“I came in today and was like, ‘It’s back,’ just like freshman year and sophomore year. It’s good that things are back for the 20th-year anniversary. It’s pretty cool.”
Year 20 of the Festival of Champions was pretty cool for McCarthy, too, as the Bangor High School senior raced to victory in a time of 15 minutes, 34.24 seconds.
McCarthy shaded runner-up Abbott Valentine of Hampden Academy by 10.09 seconds as seniors swept the top seven places in the boys field of 674 distance runners.
Connor Daigle of Medomak Valley in Waldoboro was third in 16:05.87, with Zachary Barry of Scarborough (16:15.79) and Chris Walton of Biddeford (16:18.62) also earning top-five finishes.
McCarthy’s effort helped a Bangor team minus two of its top five runners — Fritz Oldenburg and Adam Miller-Treat — to a second-place finish behind Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference rival Brunswick.
Led by senior Joey Valliere (15th) and junior Eli Palmer (18th), the Dragons won the boys competition with 159 points, followed by Bangor (229), Cape Elizabeth (260), Portland (320) and Hampden Academy (325).
South Portland (328), Messalonskee of Oakland (360), Scarborough (383), Bonny Eagle of Standish (427) and Harwood Union of Moretown, Vermont (429), completed the top 10 finishers among 55 competing schools.
“I’m happy where I am and I’m happy with where the team is,” said McCarthy, who finished second behind Valentine at last year’s festival to lead Bangor to the 2020 team championship. “I just hope we can get a couple of guys healthy again and then we should be a force to be reckoned with at states.”
While the pace at the start of the race wasn’t exceedingly fast, McCarthy — the only Maine runner to run a 5K cross country in less than 15:30 so far this fall with a 15:28 at the Southern Maine XC Festival in Gorham on Sept. 9 — took the early lead with a 4:50 first mile, then maintained a modest cushion over Valentine the rest of the way.
“Daniel was injured here last year, but he’s come back strong this year and I’ve been really impressed with what he’s been able to do,” Valentine said. “He’s a really strong runner and he just went out and took the lead in this race and no one could catch him.”
Valentine, who won last year’s FOC race in 16:05.37, set a personal-best for the distance with his 15:44.35 clocking.
“This was probably the biggest race I was going to run before regionals and states, so I knew if I was going to PR this was the race to do it,” he said.
Both Valentine and McCarthy were appreciative of the return to the large field for the festival and the challenge it presents.
“There’s a lot of excitement and a lot of anticipation for this race because it is the biggest cross country race for high schools in Maine and people come from all over,” Valentine said. “I think nine of the top 10 runners in the state were here today, and it’s just a great atmosphere of competitiveness and really drives everybody to do their best.”