The pace of teaching and coaching in the new school year—not to mention the work of parenting, as well as being a son for my 80-year-old mother who now lives with us and husband to my hard working teacher wife, Peggy—has hit full stride, and I have not even given a thought to this blog for a couple weeks. When I have given it a thought, I have not had what seems to be the requisite distance and perspective on events to even make reflection possible. It has been just go, go, go for a few weeks now.
Part of the problem is that I tend to write long, rather than short. So even sitting down to post something seems daunting, in part because the project of this blog has become an account of our cross country season–and there is catching up to do.
So–our cross country season is now finally fully underway after our Saint Ignatius team’s visit to the IHSA state championship course on September 10 for the Peoria Woodruff Invitational. We ran passably well there. That is, the runners who ran there that day set many personal bests. Our top runner Jack Keelan ran with the lead pack of four through two miles, passing the mile in 4:40 and the two mile in 9:36—a pace faster than his pace at the state championship meet last November when he was 12th. Over the last mile the 2011 Peoria Woodruff winner Garrett Sweatt of Edwardsville ran away from Keelan to finish in an amazing early season 14:20, with Leland Later of New Trier second in 14:23 and Jereme Atchison of Buffalo Grove third in 14:27, as Keelan finished fourth in 14:48.
It was a little bit disappointing for Keelan, because he had been just a second behind Sweatt at the state meet last year. But it was Keelan’s first race of the season, and we fully expect him to be able to run that fast in November. Sweatt and the others who are already running that fast—fast enough to win the state championship race in many years—don’t have a lot of room to improve over the next two months. This has, in fact, become the mantra of our season now: We will run fast when it matters the most.
As a team we finished 22nd out of 37—not the finish expected by those like ESPN Dyestat who had ranked us among the top 25 teams in the state of Illinois. We did race without our number two and three runners, senior co-captains Patrick Santino who is out with a stress reaction in his foot) and Peter Devitt who took the ACT that day. The other members of our team did set personal bests on the three-mile course, and many of our younger runners in the open ran personal bests, as well.
But it is also apparent that this will be a remarkable season in Illinois cross country, with many teams and runners around the state showing dramatic improvement. The surprise winner of the Peoria Woodruff meet was Niles North High School, a team that was not even on any of the ranking lists of top state teams. Niles North defeated Buffalo Grove, which was still another surprise team, albeit one that people knew would be a surprise, and Neuqua Valley, which came into the race as the number one ranked team in the state. Neuqua did run without two of its top runners. The performance of Niles North is a big concern for our team, because they are a rival in the Chicago-area sectional qualifying meet for the state championship—along with known power teams like York High School, New Trier, Oak Park River Forest, and Loyola.
Indeed, another bit of news since I last posted is that the IHSA released the lineup assigning schools to sectional meets for the state championship series. When ESPN Dyestat revised its week three state rankings and included a ranking of the top ten teams for each sectional, our team got a rude surprise. We went from being one of the top 25 teams in the state to not even being ranked in the top ten teams for our own sectional, one of five sectionals around the state.
Rankings are really rather arbitrary, of course, and while it was fun to be thought of as a top state team, we were aware of the reality. We knew that the number four-five-six-seven runners on our team would have to develop significantly this season if we are going to qualify to compete in the state championship. With the improvements by other teams, that further raises the ante for our improvement. And, of course, we also need to get our strong number two runner, Patrick Santino, who is a candidate for a top-25 finisher in the state, back from his injury.
So the journey ahead for our team will either be an amazing story as we become the darkest of dark horses—or a disappointing one as we fall short of the expectations and hopes that come from having a successful season last year. The improvement we will need is quite dramatic. We need to match the big steps already taken by other teams in our sectional like Lane Tech, Maine South, Niles West, and the already mentioned Niles North.
As if to rub some salt in our wounds, this weekend we were hosts for the inaugural Saint Ignatius-Fenwick Cross Country Invitational, a “home” meet which we ran at Midlothian Meadows Forest Preserve, part of Cook County but still a good 45-minute drive from our downtown campus. We lost the meet to Jones College Prep, one of the state’s top teams in the 2A division, but a team that we should be able to beat if we are one of the state’s top 3A teams. Of course, we should also be a 2A team, except for the multiplier. This weekend’s results suggest, however, that we would not even be a top 2A team.
We did have some distractions. We took the occasion of our “home” meet to organize a “Senior Day” picnic and celebration, something many teams do regularly but we have not done in my six years as coach. There were undoubtedly boys who were already thinking about eating “Hog Wild” barbecue for lunch as they lined up to race in the morning. Our parents did all the work for this event, but it was also yet another thing on my mind that day.
As first time hosts of the meet, I was really a meet organizer rather than a coach on Saturday—and a rather inexperienced meet organizer. The meet went well, but there were perhaps a few rough edges which we will iron out next year. There were fun aspects to the meet and its preparations—including a debate about the prospects for the high concept meet t-shirt designed by our Fenwick partner and colleague Dave Rill. Some people predicted the runners would like them and buy them; others, including my wife, weren’t so sure. The shirt turned out to be a hit, as we sold 150 or so. I decided that once you see someone wearing the shirt, it obviously works. You declare yourself a “runner” when you wear this shirt–and cross country runners don’t get that many occasions to tell people who they are.
This was the first “home” cross country meet Ignatius boys have held in probably 15 years. I know little about that old event, which I think was a freshmen and sophomore meet held on Columbus Day in Grant Park. The Ignatius cross country coach for that meet was Jim Connelly, also formerly track coach and mathematics and social studies teacher. I did not directly take over in track and cross country from Coach Connelly, who is a member of the Illinois track and cross country coaches Hall of Fame, and I never coached with him. But he has been a friend and supporter during my nine years coaching at Ignatius.
On Saturday we invited Coach Connelly to the meet, and he attended with his son Pete and Pete’s wife Monica. Pete and Monica might have attended anyway, because their son Joey—Jim’s grandson—runs for our team as a freshman. But the special occasion on Saturday was that we will name the meet after Coach Jim Connelly starting next year. Since the meet is a joint venture with our Chicago Catholic League friend and rival Fenwick, Connelly will share billing with their Hall of Fame coach, John Polka, who retired from coaching two years ago. As I joked at the awards ceremony after the race, when we announced the new name–“At Fenwick they can call it ‘The Polka,’ and at Ignatius we will call it ‘The Connelly.’”
One final distraction, perhaps: After running cross country races, buying t-shirts, celebrating with Coach Connelly, eating Hog Wild, and taking pictures and celebrating Senior Day, our boys had one last suprise for me–and perhaps it was for them really the main event of the day. Trying to get home to my own family with some of Saturday still available for us, I left the parents to continue watching the boys as the Ignatius and Fenwick cross country teams played a monster game of Ultimate Frisbee, which included Patrick Santino running about in his inflatable plastic boot.