Riley Masters’ feet moved so slowly on the basepaths and his bat had so little pop, his Bangor High junior varsity teammates hung a nickname on him: Riley the Rally Killer.

“I hit into so many double plays,” he says with a laugh. “I love baseball but I was the slowest kid on the team.”

Flip the calendar pages ahead nearly five years.

Friday, on the storied Magee-Samuelson track at Bowdoin College, Masters and a field of runners will wait for the starter’s pistol and the running of the featured mile of the Distance Gala. For the one-time frustrated baseball player, it will be an attempt to become the first Mainer to break 4 minutes in the mile on Maine soil.

Never mind that Jason Pyrah, a two-time Olympian and Brigham Young graduate from Missouri, was the first to break the 4-minute mile in Maine. He did it at the 1998 New Balance Distance Running Festival on the same track, going 3:56.2.

Pyrah’s effort was overshadowed that night by Regina Jacobs’ emotional run in the women’s 5,000-meter run, breaking the American record. She captivated the large crowd in Whittier Field’s covered grandstand by taking a microphone and thanking them for pulling her through the race with their noisy enthusiasm.

When Pyrah won, leading several others across the finish in sub-4 minute times, the sun had set, literally and figuratively.

Never mind that Masters first broke 4 minutes four months ago during the University of Maine’s indoor season.

A junior, he won the Valentine Invitational in Boston in 3:59.97, setting a university record. He’s dropped that time twice to a personal best of 3:58.17.

In today’s world of around-the-clock ESPN, every sport needs a hook or a main event to separate from the clutter. Friday’s mile run in the inaugural Distance Gala, the hoped-for successor to the Distance Running Festival, is that attempt.

That Masters is the surprise no one saw coming makes it better yet. His rabbit, Casey Quaglia, adds another nice side story.

A year older, Quaglia got cut from the Bangor High baseball program and joined the track team, becoming its best miler. “It was the worst thing that happened to me and the best thing. I knew the track team didn’t cut anyone.”

Masters followed Quaglia two years later onto the track team. He followed Quaglia around the track, too.

Quaglia went off to Binghamton University while Masters reinvented himself.

A growth spurt between his sophomore and junior seasons helped to jump-start transformation.

This winter, Quaglia followed Masters across the finish line. “He broke all my high school records. In college it was a complete role reversal. I used to beat this kid all the time and then I was asking myself, ‘why can’t I beat him?’ My teammates started saying Binghamton got the wrong kid from Maine.”

Masters took this spring off from NCAA competition. So much has come so quickly, he needed time to recharge physically and mentally.

He will make a push to qualify for the Olympic trials with a goal of making the 2012 team.

Masters is not a speed miler in the mode of Erik Nedeau, the Kennebunk High graduate who was given the opportunity to become the first runner to break the 4-minute mile at the first Distance Running Festival in 1994.

He didn’t do it in a couple of attempts over the years.

Coincidentally, Nedeau’s coach at Northeastern was Mark Lech, now Masters’ coach at Maine.

Lech says the two couldn’t be more different as runners. Nedeau’s motor burned hot with its speed. Masters’ motor doesn’t tire.

Friday night, Masters and Quaglia will drive to Bowdoin College together. “For 4 minutes of running we were enemies,” said Quaglia. “Once we finish we’re hugging each other. He’s my friend.

Quaglia will set the faster, early pace for his friend, burning up his own endurance to allow Masters to carry the momentum to the finish.

The pair ran one-two in the Milk Run mile this past weekend in Bangor. Masters was 13 seconds off a 4-minute mile but it was the tuneup he needed.

Funny, but Masters hasn’t forgotten his past. He was a right-handed pitcher and outfielder. “I’m a Red Sox fan and I do miss baseball. I’d give anything to go back and play.

“But running is now my passion. No, it doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it’s a rewarding feeling when you do well.”

When the slowest becomes the fastest.

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: SteveSolloway