You’d be hard-pressed to find a boys runner in the state who improved more from 2015 to this past season than Mt. Blue High School senior Tucker Barber. The lanky runner shaved close to a minute and a half off his best times from his junior season, and at state championship Saturday in early November, Barber ran the best time of the day on the Troy Howard Middle School course in Belfast to earn the Class A title.

“I’m kind of in awe of what he was able to accomplish,” Mt. Blue cross country coach Kelley Cullenberg said minutes after Barber earned his state championship. “This is really the first season, he was focused before, but this is really the first season I’ve seen that, ‘Wow. I can do this.’ I can’t wait to see what he does in college.”

For his efforts, Tucker Barber is the Morning Sentinel Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.

Barber already was one of the most accomplished Nordic skiers in the state, winning the Class A state title in classical last winter, while placing second in freestyle. In training for the cross country season, Barber used the same approach he used in his offseason Nordic training. It came down to simply putting in the work.

“I didn’t focus on times, but I made sure to put in some decent miles,” Barber said.

Some days Barber would get in three to five miles. Others, he’d go for longer, 15- or 16-mile runs. When it was time to focus on times, they came down. They came down a lot.

“Once the season started, he focused on the speed portion, because that was a weakness for him,” Cullenberg said.

The first big race of the season is the Festival of Champions. The annual midseason race in Belfast features some of the best runners in New England and is a good way to gauge where you stand as the championship meets begin. As a junior, Barber ran the Festival of Champions in 17:17.89, finishing 38th. This season, Barber shaved 47 seconds off his time, placing 10th in 16:30.01.

Barber cut just over a minute off his time at the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference meet at Cony High School in Augusta, winning in 16:43.2 after placing sixth as a junior. At regionals, also in Belfast, Barber cut one minute, nine seconds off his 2015 time, winning Class A North in 15:57.44. Cullenberg looked at his splits, Barber went out in the first mile of regionals at 4:54, and told him, he was a contender for the state championship.

“You’re strong. You can definitely do this,” Cullenberg recalled saying to Barber. “You can stay with the guys at the front and still end up winning the race.”

A week later, on the same course, Barber ran 15:47.33. He took the lead just over a mile into the race, and held off a late surge by Mt. Ararat’s Cameron Meier, beating Meier by four seconds. As in Nordic skiing, Barber finds his strength on the challenging parts of the course, like hills.

“I like the parts of the course where you see people slow down. You can go,” Barber said.

One of those spots on the Troy Howard Middle School course in Belfast is known as The Highway. Just over a mile into the course, The Highway is a long, straight section with a slight uphill. At that point in the race, many runners are settling into their pace. In the state championship, that’s when Barber made his move.

“Everybody knows now that he doesn’t go out fast, relatively speaking,” Cullenberg said. “He’s really just so low key about all of it. He went out 10 seconds slower than he did at regionals, and ran 10 seconds faster overall.”

Barber capped his season with a 12th place finish at the New England Championship in North Scituate, Rhode Island, running the course in 15:56.54. It was another huge improvement in a season full of them. At the 2015 New England Championship in Thetford, Vermont, Barber placed 127th, running 17:54.7.

“I had a little bit more of an idea of what I was doing,” Barber said of this year’s New England race.

Added Cullenberg: “I think he was just more passionate about seeing what he could achieve.”

With the Nordic ski season approaching, Barber said he’s unsure of his college plans. When considering his options, Barber will look at schools where he could compete in either sport.

“If the opportunity comes, I’d like to do both,” he said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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