I am sitting in the Embassy Suites hotel in East Peoria, in the early morning before the IHSA state cross country championships. Our Saint Ignatius boys’ cross country team races at 2:00 today.
We almost didn’t make it here.
Last Saturday our team qualified—just barely—for the IHSA 3A state meet for the second consecutive year, finishing in a tie for fifth place (140 points) with York High School at the Niles West sectional.
York qualified for the state meet for the 50th consecutive year. They have won 31 sectional titles–and 27 state titles.
Our Saint Ignatius boys have never won a sectional title. We thought the 2014 Niles West Sectional was our chance to do so.
The close call in our favor was a welcome reprieve. Niles West has some ghosts for us.
It could have been three times in a row. Two years ago, results were posted at the Niles West sectional that placed us in the fifth qualifying position. We had not run as well as we hoped that day, but it appeared that we had qualified. Our team celebrated somewhat raucously. Then rumors circulated that there had been an error in those results, and the rumors were confirmed when a frustrated Niles West meet worker tore the posted results off the wall. Officials had not reviewed the full video of the finish. A Lane Tech runner had not been scored because of a chip error. When he was reinserted into the results, we were relegated to sixth. Our only consolation was that Jack Keelan and Chris Korabik advanced as individual qualifiers, and Keelan went on to win the state individual championship in Peoria.
This year, interestingly, our team was subdued, even almost seemingly disappointed, when the news came that we had finished in a tie for fifth, even though we had survived and advanced through the sectional. Perhaps they were just relieved.
We got the news first when someone read a tweet from Dyestat Illinois listing the top six finishers as qualifiers. There was some nervousness from those who were not sure that both teams would advance from a sectional when there is a tie for fifth; according to the tie-breaker, we were actually sixth. Some of those nervous people had been there in 2012.
When we saw official results on the Edgetiming.com web site, by mobile phone, there were a few questions about whether those results could still change. Then they went up on the wall of the Niles West field house.
When it was clear we had advanced, there was no celebration. We went to the awards ceremony. Dan Santino got his medal for tenth place. When they announced the team awards, New Trier got a first-place plaque. It is almost amusing that at the sectional meet the other qualifying teams—Glenbard West, Loyola, Maine South, and York–simply get parking passes for the state meet. There were only five of them, as it turned out. As the sixth place team, technically, we were told we would have to email Ron McGraw at the IHSA office to get ours.
Our only celebration, really, was to take some photographs of the group. We even had to remind them to smile.
We had not run our best rest. We had, in fact, wanted to win the race. We thought we would win the race.
We had raced to win. Our plan was to be aggressive from the start, putting our top four runners in the lead pack. Assuming the pace was reasonable, not too fast and not too slow, our guys would try to move and push the pace just after the mile when the runners turned south in the long corridor from one end of the Niles West athletic field to the other. From that point they would try to make it hard. We wanted to put our team at the front of the race with a dwindling number of competitors. If we could execute the race this way, we thought, it would mean low numbers for our top four runners—and a low team score.
Our team had been lurking at the front of some of the top Illinois meets through the fall. We were fifth at First to the Finish, just behind New Trier, and at Palatine we were sixth, behind New Trier, once again, but just twenty points from winning. At the Chicago Catholic League meet we had tied Loyola, 29-29, and then lost on the sixth-runner tie breaker. It was time for us to cross the gap between being a good team and being a team that should try to win a big race.
The early part of the race seemed to go the way we had hoped. From box position number two on the far outside of the starting line, we moved through open ground at one end of the starting line to the front of the race before the sweeping first turn to the left 300 or so meters from the start. It was important to get to the front of the race at Niles West because at 500 meters the race moves through a narrowing gate which takes the runners to a small wooded area and a narrow trail. Going through that gate the first time, our top four were up towards the front of the race and moved through easily. I saw our second group of three runners get through, also, well toward the front of the race.
At the half-mile mark outside the return gate to the field, where I was watching, the race leader was Irwin Loud of Oak Park-River Forest in about 2:22. Our top four—Dan Santino, Kallin Khan, John Lennon, and Andy Weber—trailed him in a big pack of 20 to 30 runners. They were not running together, really, but were kind of strung one behind the other, with Santino leading in around 2:25. Our second group of runners—Vince Lewis, Patrick Hogan, and Brian Santino—would be important for us, too, of course, because from among them would come our fifth scoring runner. Santino and Lewis came through the half-mile in around 2:32, with Hogan right behind them.
The lead group ran away from me at my position on the south end of the Niles West field, but I’m told at the mile Loud went through in 4:52 and the lead group was at 4:55. When they returned to my end of the field our guys had not taken the race lead, but they were in good position. Our four—Santino, Khan, Lennon, and Weber–were very close to the front in the top 15. At the half-way mark of the race, as Santino and Khan passed together with Weber and Lennon just behind, I yelled out 7:35. Then I continued to count back to our number five. Lewis was now 64th at the half-way mark. That was a concern. Our plan for winning, targeting around 90 points, probably required Lewis to finish at around 50th.
The race ran south again. Loud continued to lead all the way to the two-mile mark, I am told, which they passed in 10:10. In video before the 2-mile that I viewed after the race, Lennon had fallen back out of the lead pack. Weber was holding on at the back. But Khan and Santino were still way up front.
After the 2-mile mark, as the runners prepared to go through the gate for a third time, the attackers had begun to amass behind Loud—including Khan and Santino. But that lead group clearly did not include Andy Weber, who had faded to 19th, and John Lennon, who had fallen back to around 30th. Lewis went by in about the same spot, as well, in 64th.
With 1000 meters to go, Khan pushed to the lead, with Santino following. But going into the back wooded loop through the gate, our team fortunes were declining.
Coming out of that loop Santino pushed into the lead, and Khan got swallowed up by a group of trailers that included members of teams that we were racing for the team win and for the top five team places to go to the state meet. From New Trier there was Josh Rosenkrantz, from Glenbard West Chris Buechner and Eric Neumann, from York Charlie Kern, and from Maine South Henry Mierzwa. Following that group of ten or so, loping by five meters behind, was Loyola’s Jack Carroll. Carroll had run by Santino in the final 200 meters at the Chicago Catholic League meet for the win, after Santino had opened up a ten meter gap. That one point swing had given Loyola its tie—and then its win on the sixth-runner tiebreaker.
With 400 meters or so to go, the chasers were going by Santino. Carroll quickly took the race lead at about the same time. He did it convincingly, with only York’s freshmen Charlie Kern able to challenge him. The race ended at the end of the Niles West stadium on the track after running the full straightaway. Carroll was the winner, with Kern second, and then Buechner third.
Santino would fade all the way to tenth. Khan was chasing him to the finish, but he was passed by two runners in the last meters to finish 13th. Lennon caught Weber, who had continued to fade, to finish 28th, with Weber right behind in 29th. As Weber crossed the line, two more runners flashed past him. If there had been two more meters in the race, Weber would have been 31st. Lewis finished in 63rd overall, but three individuals without teams were ahead of him to make him 60th in the team race.
After the race, Weber was disoriented—and probably dehydrated. Santino was frustrated to have had the lead and then get passed by nine runners. None of our runners seemed happy. But six out of the seven—Weber had most notably struggled just to finish—ran faster times in the sectional than they had run in the Pat Savage Invitational four weeks before on the same course.
We wouldn’t know for another hour or so how close we were to not even qualifying for the state meet. But we had, in fact, simply tried to win the race—like you are supposed to do.
The final standings gave New Trier the victory with 81 points, Glenbard West second with 88, Loyola third with 103, a surprising Maine South with 138, and then York and Ignatius with 140. Like they say about the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, “survive and move on.”
Today at the IHSA state championship, our team is no longer in the conversation really as one of the top teams competing for a trophy. There are no polls or rankings this week, but we would undoubtedly have fallen from our perch as number five in the Milesplit rankings and our number seven in the Dyestat Illinois rankings and the ITCCCA coaches’ poll. We probably would have fallen right out of the top ten.
But today there are no polls—just head to head racing. It is a different kind of race, and probably not a race that we can win. Our strategy will be a little bit different—but also the same.
Our top four runners need to finish the race with as low a number as possible—with perhaps all four in the top 30. We think Weber, Khan, and Santino can compete for all-state honors, and Lennon could be close behind. Our number five runner—either Lewis, Hogan (just a freshman), or Brian Santino—must finish no lower than 70th.
In 1982 York won the state championship with 79 points. But with 167 points, the highest points total ever in the state meet for second place, Saint Ignatius was second, the only trophy in our team’s history.
Carl Sandburg High School looks like the front runner today, with the defending champion Hinsdale Central chasing them. Perennial state meet trophy hunter Neuqua Valley is chasing them, along with last year’s fourth place team Lyons Township and last year’s second place team Downers Grove North. Then there are the four top finishers from our sectional—along with York, whom many had written off earlier in the season as unlikely even to qualify for the state meet. There are strong teams from the other sectionals, as well.
Mike Newman from Dyestat Illinois yesterday told me that he expected there could be a high points total in the race—especially for the second and third place trophy positions. The higher the totals for all the teams, the better our chances might be, like in 1982.
We ran the Niles West sectional expecting it to be our breakthrough race for the year—and for our program. It didn’t happen.
We’ll run the state meet hoping for the same thing to happen. We still think the big race is in us. We just have to run it.