Now it starts to get serious!

Our 2011 season begins with a practice meet, the Wolfpack Howl, in Washington Park against blue and white teams from Jones College Prep. Photo by Monica Stevens.

We start our season with what we describe as a practice meet.  In past years, in the middle of this fourth week, we ran a low-key event at the old Lincoln Park one-mile loop organized by the now closed Quigley North.   More recently we debuted with many other city teams at the St. Patrick Invitational at Schiller Woods, another event on Wednesday of this fourth week.  But I have always done my best to avoid weekday events.  Our boys, as I note often, travel as long as an hour to commute to and from school.  Even if we get back to school at 8:00 after a weekday meet, our boys might not get home until much later in the evening.

So four years ago we invented the Wolfpack Howl.  It was inspired, in part, by what I had heard of the Fenwick Black and White race—an intersquad  event.  On the old IHSA calendar, the third Saturday  of the season was not available for competition against other teams; now it is available as a competition weekend.   But we have opened our serious competition season for many years at the Leavey Invitational at Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles on Labor Day weekend—plenty early for a season that we hope will extend to the state meet in November.

Our practice meet allows us to teach pre-race routines to the new freshmen--including a team prayer. Photo by Monica Stevens.

But some kind of event before St. Charles—not too serious—seemed like a good idea.  The new runners need to know what a cross country race entails.  They need some practice warming up and learning our routines before a race.  They need to feel the hard effort of a race—much different than the easy running they mainly have experienced so far in practice.  And they need to run through a finish line and chute just to know how it works.  Rehearsal preparation of this kind relieves anxiety and turns the unknown into something known.  Our more experienced runners need a reminder about these things, as well—especially what it feels like to put in some real race effort.

We split our team into color teams--and the white team prepared with their own team prayer. Photo by Monica Stevens.

In the Wolfpack Howl, we have invited other teams to join us in a non-traditional event.  We break our team up into smaller color teams, as evenly balanced as we can make them.  We ask the invited teams—this year just Jones College Prep, a good match for us—to do the same.  Our dual meet therefore becomes a five- or six-team meet.  Our boys make their own uniforms for gold, maroon, and white teams.  The Jones team wore team uniforms—white tops for one group, blue tops for another.  We also ran races at two levels, frosh soph teams and varsity teams.

I announced the assignments for our teams at mid-week, and the boys separated into their teams that day for our stretching activities.  There was lots of trash talking between the groups.

We run just two miles, and although we start the race on grass, after about 400 meters we run on a gravel jogging path that circles the north end of Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side.  Washington Park would have been the site of the Olympic Stadium in the ill-fated Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympics.  The jogging path this Saturday had plenty of cross country elements, with lots of holes and puddles.   When international visitors were coming to visit the park to inspect the site two years ago, the jogging path was kept up well.  I’m not sure it has been repaired since the Olympic decision in October 2009.  We add a small half mile loop at the start of the race, and then we run the jogging path for one lap of 1.5 miles for our two mile race.

Splitting their top runners between just two teams, the Jones blue and white teams placed first and second, with 53 and 55 points.  The three Ignatius teams were close together, as well, with the white team of junior Jack Keelan scoring 76 points, the maroon team of senior Peter Devitt scoring 77 points, and the gold team of seniors Clifford Vickrey and Mike Tonner scoring 80 points.  Keelan was the overall winner of the race in 9 minutes and 51 seconds, followed by Jamison Dale of Jones (2nd, 10:23), Luke O’Connor of Jones (3rd, 10:38), and Kirby Lawson of Jones (4th, 10:50).   Ignatius runners took the next four sports with  Devitt (5th, 10:54), Vickrey (6th, 11:12), Tonner (7th, 11:17), and sophomore Chris Korabik (8th, 11:18).

Scored as a dual meet, Ignatius would have won a close contest 27-29.  Jones has been touted as a potential top ten team in class 2A; our team has been ranked in preseason estimates in the top 25 of 3A teams.  You can read about the Jones team in Alan Sutton’s blog; Sutton made a visit to our race to see the Jones boys in action and talk to coach Andrew Adelmann.  Jones ran the Howl without one of their top runners, Tim Warren, who was hit by a car while riding his bicycle three weeks ago; he has recovered and is running again, but he was held out of the meet.  Our Ignatius team was missing our number two runner, however, senior Patrick Santino, who ran 9:29 for 3200 meters last spring.  Santino has been struggling with a foot problem which has finally been diagnosed as something that is not quite a stress fracture, but a problem nonetheless.  He will likely miss a month of running while he heals.

We had a few surprises in our results–and a few disappointments.  Boys who had trained hard in the summer finished behind boys they have been outrunning in practice.  Sometimes sports are not fair that way.  We were particularly happy with the performances of Korabik, as well as another sophomore Taylor Dugas, who was our sixth finisher overall.  Dugas was not among our top 15 runners as a freshmen, so he has made a lot of improvement.  Running well ahead of his anticipated slot, Dugas essentially won the race among the Ignatius group for his white team.

Our Howl ends with a picnic at the coach's Hyde Park condo in the parking lot. Photo by Monica Stevens.

After the race, we do a little bit more running.  Our older boys took a run to the lake.  The team regrouped again at our Hyde Park condo.  We move our car from its parking spot and set up tables and chairs.  It is a tradition that one of the fathers grills hamburgers and brats for the group of 40-plus boys and many parents; this year the hot job went to Phillip Hatzopolous.   After eating, a big group of the boys disappeared to a nearby park for some Frisbee.

After three weeks of practice, the preseason is over.  Our training changes this week.  Our more experienced boys enter a phase of harder training that will carry us through to October.  We will be racing on the weekends, and some of these are big events.  But these races are still just stops on the way to the big events at the end of the season.  We “train through” these September meets.

Our beginners—or those who did not do much preparation in the summer—will gear up a notch, as well, although their harder training will begin in a couple weeks.  We have accomplished a number of things in these first weeks—not the least of which has been to get the freshmen and newcomers acclimated to the difficult daily task of going to school for seven hours and then coming to a two-hour practice.

Next Saturday we assemble at 6:45 AM at Ignatius for a bus ride of over an hour to St. Charles.  Every year we ask the boys if they really want to drive all the way out to St. Charles to run.  There are closer races.  Every year the boys tell me that the love running the Leavey Invitational—through the woods and grass fields of the forest preserve against top competition.  This race is “real cross country,” the older boys tell the newcomers.   There are hills, and bottleneck trails, and forest preserve police on horseback directing traffic.  There will be twenty teams competing.   The races will have approximately 140 boys in the two limited roster events, with 200 or more in the open race.

This year the competition at the top level is not overly strong, but it will include three or four of the top 25 teams in the state.  We will be one of those pre-season ranked teams.   But the meet is deep and strong overall.  We are competing mainly against teams from the western suburbs, where cross country teams are in general much better than they are in the city.  Our team goals are to finish in the top five for both the varsity and the frosh soph races.

The team building continues, but the team is taking shape.

Frisbee and tree climbing in the park. Photo by Monica Stevens.

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