BENNINGTON -- Chances are when you see a Mount Anthony Union High School cross country athlete running in a race, a teammate or two are not far behind.
As the Patriots head into the Thetford Woods Trail Run, an invitational race this weekend held at Thetford Academy, the team is truly running with a pack mentality.
The Patriots, both boys and girls, are undefeated in the Marble Valley League, combining for a 33-0 record on the year in the MVL. The reason?
Consider this, over the last three races, here are the finishing places for the top five MAU boys runners: First, second, third, sixth, and seventh at Rutland on Sept. 17. Second, third, fourth, seventh, and ninth at Mill River on the Sept. 24, and first, second, third, ninth, and tenth on Oct. 1.
"That is the key to our success, their ability to run with each other," coach Jim Dulin said.
And it is something that the runners find helpful.
The biggest thing that the Patriot runners noted about their grouping in races is how it pushes each other to run faster.
"You tend to help yourself out more when you run with people that are about your level," Matt Strano said. "Some guys typically like to stay with each other. That is what we have been having all season."
Emily Smith noted a similar theme for the girls.
"We kind of use [people in front of us] to push ourselves. Use them to push you up from behind. If you see one in front of you, you try to catch them," Smith said.
For both teams, this year has also been about replacing graduated runners, although the two teams are taking different approaches.
The boys' team faced the tougher of the two tasks. Gone is Marc Brandmeyer, last year's state champion and sixth-place finisher in the New England meet. So are a few other seniors who helped the team to two straight New England appearances.
For the girls, the team had to replace top runner Erin Anderson.
"Last year was an exceptional year," Dulin said. "It might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a coach. This year we are a little off of that, it is a different team."
Andrew Brandmeyer has stepped up for the Patriots as the top runner, taking over for his brother. But Will Buckley is right behind him during most races.
"Running with your teammate, you might have a guy that is faster than you. It is a good strategy to just hang on as long as you can, let him pull you ahead," Buckley said. "That is what I try to do with Andrew."
Between those two, Barlow, Strano, Luke Lapean, Caleb Noel, and Andy Seward, the Patriots have seven runners all capable of finishing in the top 10 in their MVL races.
"We lost a lot of seniors last year, but I think we can make up for it if we work hard," Strano said. "But that's the thing; we have to work hard if we want to make [it to] New England for the third year in a row."
For the girls, replacing Anderson became a little easier when Molly O'Callaghan joined the team.
After having played soccer previously, O'Callaghan jumped ship to cross country for a very simple reason.
"I like to run," she said. "I guess that I am better at running than playing soccer."
O'Callaghan has slotted in as one of the top two runners on the side, along with Hale.
And Hale welcomes O'Callaghan with open arms. The two work well off of each other, with the lead runner often pushing along the other.
"When I pass Molly I'm like ‘use me, use me' as her motivation," Hale said.
Smith, Kate Ahearn, and Abby Malmborg, and Asuka Kosaki are all right behind the two. Over the last three races, the girls have finished second, fifth, sixth, and seventh at Rutland, first, third, fourth, fifth, and ninth at Mill River, and third, fourth, sixth, eighth, and ninth at Brattleboro.
"Running in groups, it psyches the other teams out because all of a sudden, a massive group of girls are coming," Ahearn said.
Malmborg added: "I think it is really helpful to run with the team. It pushes me more because I want to run with the top girls."
But as the team heads up to Thetford this weekend, and prepares for the state meet and, potentially, another New England eet, running as a unit will be a bit more difficult.
The race, because of the large number of runners, will be broken up into five different running groups, all seeded on runners' 5K times.
"I like racing in an invitational because there are more people to push you faster," Ahearn added. "You are never by yourself."
And besides Thetford being the home for the invitational, it is also the course used for the state meet on October 26. The invitational provides the team a preview of what the course will be like in three weeks' time, but Dulin notes there is a big difference between the races.
"It is one of the more difficult meets because of all the schools from all over," Dulin said. Teams across New England and New York regularly attend the meet.
But even then, the runners know that the race on Saturday is a good indication of how far they have come throughout the year, and what they need to do to improve before states.
"I think it is one of the most important meets of the season because we can see how we will do in the state meet," Hale said.
Brandmeyer added that "it shows us where we are in the state right now, and where we stand amongst the runners."
Dulin said that he likes this meet because it helps to maintain expectations.
"In the MVL, we are a big fish in a little pond," Dulin said. "It gives the kids perspective. When we go to some of these tough meets, we are the smaller team."
For Brandmeyer, running without his team is something he prepares for every race. As he puts it: "As soon as the gun goes off, your mindset is there. It is quiet, and you are on your own."
The race beings on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. with the junior high girls' race, while the final heat will be at 3:05 p.m., and feature the top-seeds for boys.
Geoff Smith is the Assistant Sports Editor at the Bennington Banner. He can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567 x112, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @banner_sports