When Dick Balentine cut his teeth in the Maine cross country coaching scene in 1979, he showed up to his first preseason practice at Hampden Academy with only four prospective runners ready for his tutelage.
To say Hampden’s program has grown by leaps and bounds since then is a huge understatement.
And to this writer, who spent four years running against Balentine’s teams under Glendon Rand and Dave Jeffrey at Brewer High, that’s not a surprise.
Following the 2016 cross country season, Balentine, who had put in 38 years of coaching service at Hampden, decided it was time to hang up his whistle.
While the father of two and grandfather of two is still teaching science at Hampden, it was odd to go and cover the Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions in Belfast last weekend and not see Balentine there.
Running is a pastime for him and his family, as both his daughters, Leah and Molly, ran four years of cross country for him.
They both said recently that their father was a well-prepared coach, and paid attention to every athlete on the team, whether they were a front-pack runner like Oriana Farley or Paul Casavant, or a mid-to-rear of the pack athlete.
That’s what great cross country and track coaches do. Make every single athlete feel like they’ve accomplished something, whether it’s winning a race or knocking a minute off your personal best.
Because of that, Balentine’s teams were always in the mix come October, and were always tough to run against. He always stressed that races are won in the middle of the pack, not at the front of the pack.
That was evident in the fall of 2003, when he won his first state championship. Fittingly, Molly was his top runner that season, and it was her senior year, a championship Molly calls special to this day.
Molly, now working as a hospital administrator in Chicago, and Leah, a stay-at-home mom to her two daughters who remained in Hampden, shared with me enough memories to write five columns. They used to refer to Balentine’s athletes as “The Country Kids” and found it hysterical when the runners would decorate the exterior of their household with toilet paper.
In interviewing them both recently, and I had a chance to get to know Molly a little bit more late in my high school career and into her senior year when I traded my spikes for a notebook and a pen, it was hard not to reminisce about the friendly rivalry our teams had, all the late nights we spent at Dysart’s after track meets, and the passion we all have for this sport.
Even though I’ve hung up my competitive running shoes for barbells and group fitness, it’s hard not to think about those days.
Balentine will certainly be missed in the coaching fraternity as well. Guys like him, Jeffrey, Dave King, Rod White and Maynard Walton all had different coaching philosophies – and White is still the head coach at Old Town – but they all have one thing in common.
Class. Balentine was quiet and humble when discussing his coaching career, but that’s the way he’s always been. It’s never about him. It’s about the kids. Another sign of a great coach.
He will certainly miss coaching, as he told me last week, but Balentine is now ready for some well-deserved family time with his wife, Robin, and two young granddaughters.
It also frees up more time for him and Molly to run together. They’ve completed multiple marathons together, and show no signs of slowing down. They have their favorite routes that they run on when Molly comes home.
It’s also fitting that in Balentine’s final season, he sent one more runner – Casavant – off to the Division I level.