One spot. A few seconds. That’s what drives Tiana Thomas this fall, every time she runs.

If Thomas, a University of New England junior, finished one spot higher at the NCAA New England Division III championship meet last November, she would have qualified for the NCAA championship meet. Thomas was a few seconds too slow.

When you miss a goal by such a slim margin, you can stew over it and let it consume you, or you can gain strength from it and push yourself to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

You don’t have to guess which way Thomas — a 2013 Waterville Senior High School graduate — went.

“It’s really pushing me a lot,” Thomas said.

In three races so far this season, Thomas has a pair of first-place finishes and a second place. She won the season-opening Shacklette Invitational at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. on Sept. 5, the first win of her collegiate career. The following week, Thomas placed second to teammate Brittany Sorbello, the reigning Commonwealth Coast Conference Runner of the Year, in the University of New England Invitational. Last weekend, on Sept. 26, Thomas won the Pop Crowell Invitational at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.

With the big races of the season still to come, it’s all about improving for Thomas. It’s about erasing the small deficit that sent her home last November, instead of on to the NCAA championship. Thomas placed 33rd at the New England Championship last year with a time of 22:55.3.

“I crossed the finish line, and my coach said I possibly qualified,” Thomas said. “As results started coming in, we realized I missed it by one.”

“I think it’s motivated her,” UNE cross country coach Ron Ouellette said. “She’s realized the opportunity is there. She’s set that goal.”

Thomas kept that goal in mind throughout the offseason, and into the summer, where her job as a recycling coordinator at Colby College required a lot of heavy lifting. That coupled with her usual workouts, gave Thomas a strong base at which to enter this season.

“I put in a lot of work over the summer,” she said.

Running has been a release for Thomas, ever since she started cross country in sixth grade, when her mother suggested she take up a sport.

“I just like the way I feel after a run,” Thomas said. “I’m more productive throughout the rest of the day.”

When looking at colleges, Thomas focused on schools with a strong dental hygiene program and a strong cross country team. UNE was a perfect fit.

“Walking on campus, going on the tour, I felt like I belonged there,” Thomas said.

As a member of Waterville’s cross country team, Thomas was always No. 2 to classmate Bethanie Brown, who is now a member of the cross country team at Iowa State. Now at UNE, Thomas and Sorbello push each other.

“They’re always battling to be our No. 1 runner,” Ouellette said. “In high school, (Thomas) was always in the shadows of (Brown). Since she’s come in here as a freshman, she just blossomed.”

Next Saturday, the Nor’easters will compete at Westfield State. Then, the big meets begin with the Maine championship at Bowdoin on Oct. 17. After that, UNE will go for its fourth straight Commonwealth Coast Conference title, on Halloween. Thomas placed third in the conference meet last season.

“I told the team, ‘OK, preseason’s over,'” Ouellette said. “Now we’re getting into the competitive part of the season. The competition is going to get that much more difficult.”

Thomas will compete in the ECAC championship meet in Williamstown, Massachusetts on Nov. 7. The New England Championship is Nov. 14 in Waterford, Connecticut.

And then?

The NCAA Division III championship meet is Nov. 21 in Winneconne, Wisconsin. When Thomas runs, that’s the course in front of her.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM