He’s one of the state’s fastest runners. But there’s little Jacob Hickey likes more than seeing a runner in front of him, having a slightly better day than he is.

If doesn’t usually last for long.

“I’m a really big competitor, I don’t like losing at all,” he said. “If I see people ahead of me, that’s one of the most fun times (during) a race because you always want to catch them.”

Not many runners got out in front of the Winthrop senior this year, and even fewer stayed there. Hickey had a sensational fall from start to finish, winning the Mountain Valley Championship and the Class C South regional championship and finishing second in the Class C state race, a resume good enough to qualify him for the New Englands and make him a runaway choice for the Kennebec Journal’s Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.

“I put in a lot of miles over the summer, trained pretty hard for this fall,” he said. “My coach (Ed Van Tassel) was great in getting me to a point where I was able to make it to New Englands and do pretty well there. It was a collaboration of people coming together and looking for one common goal. I think we accomplished that.”

Not bad for someone who had to be pulled into the running ranks from the outside. Hickey was originally a soccer player and recreational runner, but Van Tassel noticed his times in local 5Ks and coaxed him during his freshman year to give running a try.

“I tried it out my sophomore year, got the feel of things, and I kind of got hooked on it,” Hickey said.

He showed upside as a sophomore that he honed into ability as a junior, but the competitive instincts soon kicked in. Hickey wanted to be even better, so as spring turned into summer, he and Van Tassel, a former Division I runner at Maine, sat down and came up with a plan to achieve it.

“We talked about what we wanted to do. We kind of made a plan throughout the summer to kind of set goals and he gave me day-by-day sheets on what to do,” he said. “I tried to hit those every day as best I could.”

Above all, Hickey wanted speed. He already had the burst to get in front of the other runners. Now he wanted the jets to put them away.

“My training was more concentrated on cardio and speed workouts,” he said. “I think I did a little bit more. That concentration on the specific workouts, I think, got me into better shape.”

He had a good starting point. Hickey is a standout for the Winthrop basketball team as well, and Van Tassel saw that he had a unique athlete asking to become a great runner. “I kind of relied on that to develop those fast-twitch muscle fibers,” he said. “Doing the basketball stuff, he’s working on his speed in that aspect where a traditional cross country runner wouldn’t be doing that.

“He put in way more time into running over the summer than he ever had before.”

The training reaped immediate benefits. At the Festival of Champions, an event drawing runners from all over the state, he finished 11th. At the MVCs at the University of Maine Augusta, he trounced the field by a minute and 46 seconds. In the Class C South race he was first by 42 seconds, and in the Class C state race he was in position for the win again, finishing just behind George Stevens’s John Hassett and clear of third place by 35 seconds.

It all added up to a trip to the New England championships, the top prize for any area runner. Standing at North Scituate, Rhode Island’s Ponaganset High School, Hickey saw, for the first time all season, runners everywhere that could beat him.

“I really pushed myself that race. It was a really good experience because you’re going up against a bunch of guys that can run 15:30 5Ks,” he said. “I lined up against (La Salle’s David Principe Jr.), the No. 6 runner in the country.”

There were nerves at first, but Hickey showed he belonged with them. Hickey finished 20th overall at 16:01.15, and according to Van Tassel even broke into the top 10 until late in the race.

Looks like the summer work paid off.

“It was pretty special,” he said of the season. “It was fun. I look back on it, and it was a great ride.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter:@dbonifantMTM