WINTHROP — The Winthrop Ramblers head into Saturday’s Class C state cross country championships at Twin Brook in Cumberland hoping to spring a few surprises on the rest of the field.

“I think we’re back in a position where we can all race well and beat the teams that beat us last week,” said senior William Vance, who finished third at last week’s regional meet, which was also held at Twin Brook.

As a team, the Ramblers placed third in Class C South, behind Boothbay and Lisbon. The hope is with a more healthy roster and more of a familiarity with the Twin Brook terrain, they can challenge not only their Mountain Valley Conference rivals but powerful Northern Maine teams Orono and George Stevens Academy.

Leading them down that familiar path on Saturday will be a trio of runners who all have taken their own rather unconventional paths to cross country success — Vance, junior Jacob Hickey and sophomore Jesse Stevens.

Vance enjoyed a successful sophomore season, finishing 14th at the state meet. But he went off the beaten path his junior year and played football with his older brother, Otis.

Track is Vance’s favorite sport, and he knew he would return to cross country to help him prepare for track for his senior year. What coach Ed Van Tassel saw during track season and into Vance’s senior year was a more committed runner.

“We’re definitely glad that Will’s back in the fold. He’s got tremendous ability and talent,” Van Tassel said. “He went through the motions a little bit as a sophomore. But since track last year, really last winter once football ended, he started running and he hasn’t stopped.”

“My sophomore year, I really didn’t do any extra training. I knew that if I didn’t do the training (for this year), I wouldn’t be where I am,” Vance said. “There’s a big difference that I’ve noticed. It’s mainly endurance.”

Vance, a native of Idaho who hopes to return to attend Boise State next year, ran a personal best 16:55.08 to finish 17th at Festival of Champions. He finished third at the MVC championships and third at last week’s Class C South regional. His goal for Saturday is to go under 17 minutes again on a more difficult course.

“I want to leave everything I have on the course,” Vance said.

Vance has had quite the friendly battle with Hickey at some of the season’s biggest meets. Hickey was 14th at Festival and runner-up at both MVCs and regionals to Lisbon’s Nick Harriman.

Hickey has been running in road races for years but played soccer his freshman year. Van Tassel convinced him to join the cross country team last year, in part to have him complement Vance, before he learned Vance would spend that fall dabbling in football.

“I don’t think he was on anyone’s radar to be this good this year,” Van Tassel said. “He’s a perfectionist. When he sets his mind to doing something, he’s going to do it all the way. He just works hard. Some kids, we’ve got to push to work hard. I’ve got to reign him back.”

A standout basketball and baseball player, Hickey was inspired by former teammate Ben Allen, who won the MVC and regional titles last year, and committed to running throughout the offseason.

“He really taught me to challenge myself and do the best I could,” he said.

“I started right after last season,” Hickey added. “This summer, I ran a lot, a lot of 40-mile weeks. I put in my time and tried to do the best I can to help my team out.”

As Allen did for him, Hickey has served as a mentor to Stevens.

“He’s a great runner. I wanted to challenge him the best I can,” Hickey said. “I think his potential is way up here. The sky’s the limit for the kid.”

“He’s helped me with communication,” Stevens said. “He’s inspired me to run fast this year and try to catch up with my teammates and support my team.”

Hickey’s communication assistance is vital to Stevens, who is legally deaf. A cochlear implant helps him hear most of the time, but he removes it during races because the noise can be hard on his ear drums.

Van Tassel said communication hasn’t been an issue between him and Stevens, who has been running cross country since junior high.

“I’ve got some hand signals, but really, once the starting gun goes off, he’s all set. He knows what he’s doing,” Van Tassel said.

“He’s just got that burning desire to be really, really good,” he added. “The other day, he found out that the best runner in the state, Luke Laverdiere (of Yarmouth) is also a sophomore, and so he says ‘If he’s a sophomore and he can run that fast, why can’t I run that fast?’ He’s very motivated.”

“It’s important to me because I’m the only deaf runner on the Winthrop team,” Stevens said. “I’m trying to inspire the people around our town and other towns and cities and prove that deaf people can run the same as hearing people.”

Stevens has shown he can run a lot better than most, regardless of what they hear. He was ninth at MVCs, 12th at regionals. Only Boothbay’s Kyle Ames finished better among sophomores.

“I’m trying to break 18 minutes this year. That’s my goal. And try to be top 10 in every meet. I also want to be the fastest sophomore,” Stevens said.

“He comes to practice every day ready to work,” Hickey said. “Every single kid that’s above him, he wants to beat them.”

Above all else, the trio hopes to help the Ramblers spring a surprise on Class C Saturday. And they believe a healthier and rapidly-improving secondary trio of Caleb Fortin, Vincent Scott and Nick Dwelle can help put them over the top.

“Yeah, there are some individual accolades that go with it, but my focus from day one has been we’re doing this for the team,” Van Tassel said. “Our goal is to be top three. If we can catch a break and shake out first or second, that would be icing on the cake. We want to show those Southern Maine teams that we were a little banged up, a little sick. We had some things that didn’t go our way for those other meets and we’re getting healthy, so we’re coming for you.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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