Senior Spring: James Hickok ’17 keeps the dream alive
Initial attempts to contact men’s soccer co-captain and starting goalkeeper James Hickok ’17 proved fruitless. Then I received a reply from him saying that he had been on the road in Spain wrapping up a trial with a professional club in Spain. Not a bad excuse by any means.
While Hickok’s dream of playing professional soccer has a strong chance of becoming reality after he graduates in June, there was a time during the First Team All-Ivy keeper’s career when the future did not look as bright.
Hickok’s Dartmouth soccer career got off to a promising start. The Westport, Connecticut native started 10 games during his freshman year while splitting time with then-sophomore Stefan Cleveland ’16, earning Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors twice. Without a clear-cut starter as Hickok’s sophomore year approached, men’s soccer head coach Chad Riley decided to rotate keepers again and let competition bring out the best of his backstops. Hickok and Cleveland, who is now a supplemental keeper with Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire, traded off halves during the first two games of the season, but that all changed in what seemed like an instant.
“I sat out one game during which [Cleveland] played well, and we ended up earning our first win of the season,” Hickok said. “[Cleveland] basically started the entire next two seasons, and the team enjoyed tremendous success when he played. My sophomore season was definitely my most difficult time here because I had to adjust to being a full-time backup for the first time. Because we had been in tight competition for so long, it was time for a decision to be made, and unfortunately it didn’t go my way back then.”
While it would have been easy for Hickok to accept his position, his focus and motivation only increased. In fact, a significant amount of good did come out of his time on the bench.
“The biggest transformation concerned my focus and attitude towards soccer,” Hickok said. “I learned that what was truly important was not how much I contributed in games but rather the mentality with which I approached day-to-day training and embracing my role within the team.”
After two years of waiting, Hickok’s patience paid off. He reclaimed the starting job immediately after Cleveland graduated last spring, more excited than ever to get back into action.
“I felt that a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders because I no longer had to fight day in and day out for my spot,” Hickok recalled. “I had seen action in 20 games in my career thus far, so I already felt ready to go and did not need to adjust to the feel of games. I was able to enjoy my senior season and the time I spent with my teammates so much more than in years past.”
Being the starting keeper during this past season’s Ivy League title run also made all his dedication that much sweeter.
Hickok said he was filled with a feeling of “pure satisfaction” after the men’s soccer team won its third consecutive Ivy League Championship in 2016.
“Being able to win that third championship was so special because it was something I had envisioned since I arrived on campus,” Hickok said. “It was a feeling of true accomplishment because we felt like we had earned that title.”
While Hickok acknowledged the individual accomplishments he garnered in the past season, being a part of one of the brightest eras in Dartmouth men’s soccer history is something that he will always remember.
He noted a shift in the team’s culture that began in his sophomore year and continues today.
“Everybody is now more serious, hard-working and professional about soccer, and the program is on a level from which [Riley] stands to recruit players who want to play pro soccer after college and not just play while they attend school,” Hickok said. “We were all willing to make sacrifices in order to push the program to a new level and wanted to be role models for the younger guys in the program.”
The student-athlete experience, one particular to the American university system, also stood out for Hickok during his time at Dartmouth. His experience with professional clubs in Scotland and Spain has exposed him to a multitude of professional players who grew up without the viable option of playing collegiate soccer.
“The college athletic experience is really special,” Hickok concluded. “Most players overseas do not understand it because they grew up in countries where the system doesn’t exist.
Hickok has also seen the unseen rigors of the professional athlete experience.
“The guys I met all have families and essentially use soccer as a means to feed their families,” he said. “That very fact brings about a different edge in the professional ranks. You no longer play alongside your best friends, as I did during my entire career at Dartmouth.”
Hickok’s dream of playing professional soccer is still alive and well. He is currently in contact with teams around the globe and believes signing with a professional club will become a reality when the European soccer season kicks off in June. And while he expects stiff competition wherever he plays, he will be that much more prepared to overcome what is in front of him.