When runners wearing other schools’ colors flew past Mansfield’s Kalin Petrov at the Division 1 All-States last year, he knew that he could be much farther ahead than 52d place.
“I believe I can come in the top ten,” he said.
Despite strong times like 16:43 at the Hockomock League Championships and 16:42 at EMass Divisionals, Petrov was hindered by muscle contractions in both legs in all three, a product of having fallen too much in love with running.
His closest competitor from schools south of Boston, 84 seconds ahead of him, was Derek Holmes of Marshfield. Neither school touched the top five.
“Hopefully it’ll be a different story this fall,” said Mansfield head coach Julie Collins.
No one knows how high the Mansfield and Marshfield boys’ cross country programs will fly this November. Both programs tripped over injuries and illnesses last year, tossing them back into ninth and seventh place respectively in All-States.
On the Mansfield side, Petrov’s squad took the Hockomock title for the 15th year in a row but fell behind Wellesley 79-125 in the Division 2 EMass run.
If nothing else, trying to chase perennial power Wellesley down is paramount.
“If we’re at full strength, it’s going to be fun to watch this squad at the Wrentham course,” said head coach Julie Collins, speaking of the EMass venue.
Petrov is showing his strength. He posted his best time this September, at the Ocean State Invitationals, at 16:01.
He hasn’t eased off running ten miles a day, but he’s attempting to take care of himself better. He eats healthily and gets nine hours of sleep a night.
“Making sure I do the little things,” said Petrov.
Collins isn’t letting injuries throw a wrench in Mansfield’s chances this time, especially with most of her top runners set to graduate.
“I got to know right away, and nip it in the bud,” she said. “Kalin has a pretty high pain tolerance, and doesn’t want to get shut down.”
In his time at Mansfield, senior Kevin Crawford, 17, has fractured both a school record and a bone. As a freshman, he broke Josh Lampron’s 800-meter record of 2:04 by two seconds.
Then, the next fall, a stress fracture in his right tibia sidelined him for most of a season.
This season, with times like 16:23 at the Ocean State Invitational, he’s sharing the first-runner role with Petrov.
“He’s good at pacing me, and I’m good at kicking,” Crawford said, “so if he can pull me through the rest of the race, then I can pull him to the finish.”
Collins is certain that the closeness of her front-runners is a catalyst for their success.
“It seems like when you have one,’’ she said, “you have another one pushing him.”
Mansfield’s going to have to rely on its vanguard as it tries to break into the top five at All-States, where it also hopes to put Marshfield in the rearview mirror.
“Definitely a threat,’’ said senior Collin Rice, “but Wellesley’s the top target, coming off a state championship. It’d be good to get them.”
On this, Marshfield agrees.
“Do we think we’re so far off that we can’t get them? No,” said Marshfield head coach Dennis Sheppard.
With Holmes leading its 2016 bid, Marshfield finished runner-up in the EMass cross-country championship for the first time. In the All-States, it was Holmes again who led the charge, coming in 11th, the team’s highest finish ever.
But with Holmes gone along with Andrew Lamb, other runners must step it up.
It’s easy to spot one of those leaders in the pack. Bundled up due to cold-induced asthma, sophomore Nick Valianti said a tight throat won’t stop him.
Valianti finished 63d in All-States as a freshman, but he’s already cut 20 seconds off his run this year. If he were to run as he did at Sandwich last month, where he edged out the field with a 17:03 time, he would leap 25 places in the November race.
“I’ve already joked around with them that Valianti and [Joe] Joyce that they have to be Holmes and Lamb 2.0.,” said Sheppard.
Joyce, a senior captain, has flown past competitors for times of 17:03 at Sandwich and 15:59 in 2.85 miles against Nauset.
And an immediate challenge looms — the Battle of the Border in Hudson, N.H. Sunday, Oct. 8.
“We’ll be chasing Concord, N.H.,” said Sheppard. “We finished second to them last year. We want to redeem ourselves.”
It was that New Hampshire-Massachusetts meet that began Marshfield’s troubles last fall. Third runner Chris Bunker rolled his ankle to start off. Later, during the All-States, fourth man James Condon had to drop out midway through.
Sheppard’s hoping that those black cats don’t cross his runners’ path this year. But even so, he’s certain that even if one goes down, there will be 49 others to step in.
“The more numbers you have, the better chance you’re going to have to be a better team,” said Sheppard.
“We just gotta keep pushing each other, taking each other’s hands through storms,” said Rice.Katherine Fominykh can be reached at email@example.com.