On Friday night before the Pat Savage Invitational at Niles West High School, junior Jack Keelan of Saint Ignatius went to bed thinking he would be racing the state’s number one ranked runner, Malachy Schrobilgen of Oak Park-River Forest, the next morning. He had raced against Schrobilgen before, most recently at the Wisconsin Camp of Champions in July, where he had lost by a few seconds. He was going to try and think about it as no big deal. The race that matters would be in November at the state championship. But in fact he shouldn’t have been thinking about it at all.
We’ve been running the Pat Savage Invite at Niles West High School for four years now. Four years ago, it must have been, we got an early look there at the OP-RF sophomores who would became one of the state’s best teams when they became seniors—Peter Hogenson, Jack Stapleton, Eunhwan Woo, and Sam Fourman. With freshman Nick Reyes running up, OP-RF went 1-2-4-5-6 in the sophomore race. The next year, of course, OP-RF added Schrobilgen to that group, and he and Reyes continue to lead their current 2011 team as seniors.
For all four of our years at the Savage meet, Oak Park has run strong freshmen and sophomore teams that contend to win, and then in the varsity race they run a second team group. With weekday Western Suburban Silver conference meets filling out their schedule at this time of year, the varsity does not race the first two Saturdays in October.
Last week, after the Dyestat Illinois/ESPN High School site ran an article about Oak Park’s Malachy Schrobilgen, the site also published a meet preview of this year’s Pat Savage Invite written by one of the site’s co-editors, Tony Jones. In that preview, he touted Schrobilgen as the clear front runner and likely winner of the race. We should have known better, because we knew that OP-RF never runs their varsity runners at Savage; Schrobilgen, in fact, ran on their top varsity team as a sophomore, and so he has never run the race. But Dyestat had apparently talked to Schrobilgen that same week. Maybe Tony Jones knew something we didn’t know, we reasoned on Friday before the meet.
But he didn’t.
Knowing OP-RF and this meet well, we still had had our doubts as we arrived that morning. When we went to the starting line, I strolled down the line to eyeball the OP-RF team and look for Schrobilgen. At that point, I could have simply asked one of their boys; I could even have sought out Jose Sosa, the OP-RF coach, before the race. But I didn’t. And so we didn’t know for sure that Schrobilgen wasn’t running until Keelan went to the front of the pack after 100 meters or so with Pat Niyork of Willowbrook and Nick Miller of Harlem—with no Schrobilgen in sight.
Before DyestatIL/ESPN High School, perhaps, there never would have been an issue like this. But before the DystatIL/ESPNHS web site, there also was no such wonderful resource for high school coaches and runners in Illinois to find information about our athletes and their performances–and no such media location that promotes our sport with such devotion and attention. Sometimes, however, I wonder if we have too much information– and if we let all that information change the way we approach things. That becomes a bigger problem if the information isn’t accurate.
It seems to me that I remember a cross country version of the old Illinois Prep Top Times paper newsletter, but perhaps my memory deceives me, going back fourteen years to my first high school coaching jobs in track and cross country at The Francis Parker School in Chicago. Illinois Prep Top Times was the precursor to DyestatIL/ESPNHS—a weekly, photo-copied paper subscription newsletter that came in the mail and compiled track times and field event marks submitted by coaches, mainly during the winter track season. Those marks were used to fill the field for the Illinois Prep Top Times indoor track meet at the end of the winter season. The newsletter would continue in the spring, but with much less participation. Because it relied on reporting by coaches, many marks were missing—and because marks were self-reported, they were often unverified–and in some cases, it seemed, unverifiable.
Tony Jones took over the IPTT meet and its newsletter in 2004 or so, and he brought Bob Geiger in as a partner. In 2005, it must have been, they launched the Illinois Prep Top Times web site, which put the newsletter on the internet and instituted a more rigorous procedure for reporting and documenting results. You can still find the site—and those old results—here, although many features of the old site are now inactive. In 2008, Jones and Geiger affiliated the IPTT site with Dyestat, the premier location for national high school track and field information. Then in 2010 Dyestat itself was bought by ESPN, an affiliate of Disney, as an expansion of its web coverage in high school sports, ESPN Rise. Recently ESPN Rise changed its name to ESPN High School. Geiger and Jones now actually work for Disney, which owns ESPN.
The trademark of the original Dyestat site was its authority and integrity as a kind of high school track and field Bible, the high school version of Track and Field News; its brand name, after the site’s original founder John Dyestat, was presumably so important among track and field aficionados that Dyestat remains in the title of the ESPN High School track site. ESPN, of course, is the dominant media outlet for sports journalism in our country, outstripping Sports Illustrated because of its television and radio presence.
Jones, Geiger, and Newman at DyestatIL/ESPN High School have other jobs, in addition to their work for the web site. Geiger teaches at Whitney Young High School, where he has coached girls track and cross country for six years now, as I figure it; before that he taught at Rolling Meadows High School, which was when he started his work with Illinois Prep Top Times, and at St. Patrick High School in Chicago, where he was also a successful track and cross country coach. His coaching credentials are legit: at Whitney Young he has coached state champions Lavinia Jurkiewicz (3A cross country 2009) and Raena Rhone (3A 400 meters 2010).
I know Mike Newman has relocated just this summer from Ohio, the Cleveland area, I think, to the Chicago area. I don’t know what kind of day job he has. Tony Jones, the third key figure in the DyestatIL/ESPN High School triumvirate, works as a youth counselor, and he also coaches as an assistant for the Lane Tech cross country team.
Since this is a short critique of the group’s work as journalists, it seems fair to me to say that I should have called them to ask more about their backgrounds and their roles on the site. I am not sure how much experience they have had as journalists before their work on the web site. Newman’s Facebook page lists a double major in journalism and political science from North Central College.
A lack of journalism experience doesn’t bother me at the level of style and writing so much. I’m not properly journalistic as a writer, either. My background: A liberal arts graduate in English from Northwestern—not a Medill grad—I did graduate school in English at Johns Hopkins University and at Northwestern. But I worked as an alumni magazine editor at Johns Hopkins University and Middlebury College for six years, and then as a news officer at the University of Chicago Medical Center. I’ve done a little bit of freelance journalism. But until I started writing this blog, I’ve been out of the journalism and writing business for 15 years or so. My only journalism connection has been that I have taught journalism to high school students for five out of the last ten years.
Compare my blog or the writing on DyestatIL/ESPNHS to Alan Sutton’s blog at bigsutty.com, and you can tell from the punch of Sutton’s style who is the trained journalist and who wrote for the Chicago Tribune–and who did not. Sutton comes to cross country blogging and reporting from a career in journalism, and in our conversations, he has acknowledged that writing his own blog gives him some license to do things he could never do at the Tribune. Among other things, he posts in his own blog accounts of what other people have reported, giving them proper credit, of course. At the Tribune, Sutton could only write articles based upon his own reporting, as a matter of standard policy and practice.
But he still holds to other basic journalistic principles. When he wrote his August article about the runner no one was talking about as a contender for the state title, our Jack Keelan, I told him that Keelan had run the tenth fastest time ever for a sophomore at Detweiler last year. When he was finishing up his article, he called me to check on my source for that statement. The best I could do was tell him I remembered counting down the sophomores last year on a list I had probably found on DyestatIL. That wasn’t good enough for Sutton, who left that small fact out of his article. Later, I found a list on DyestatIL that had been compiled by Mike Newman and counted down to discover that Keelan was in fact the ninth fastest sophomore ever at Detweiler. Win one for Sutty. He would not print a fact he couldn’t confirm, and he would in fact have had it wrong if he had used what I gave him.
Which, of course, brings us back to the DyestatIL/ESPNHS preview of the Pat Savage Invite, written by Tony Jones: “Individually, Malachy Schrobilgen of Oak Park will be the heavy favorite regardless of what pace he chooses to set. The meet record is 14:19 (some say less than 3m) and it would be a tremendous challenge to obtain with slick course conditions expected as well as lack of competition and tight course turns.” Maybe my complaint can be explained away as sour grapes, because Jones failed to give Jack Keelan, who went on to win Saturday’s race easily, even a nod of a chance in this imagined potential match up. But my real complaint is that Jones had no actual knowledge or information that Schrobilgen was running in this race at all. Oak Park-River Forest was entered in the meet—but past history (or a call to Jose Sosa, the OP-RF coach) would have told him Schrobilgen would not be running.
I wondered if Schrobilgen had maybe given some indication to DyestatIL/ESPNHS contributor Tim Phillips that he might run, when Phillips interviewed him the week before the race. So on Saturday, after the race, I checked with Jose Sosa, the Oak Park-River Forest coach. Had they given any thought to having Schrobilgen run? No, said Sosa, they had made their race schedule in the summer, and the Savage Invite had never been on the list. He always sits his varsity runners on the first two weekends of October, Sosa confirmed.
Keelan, please understand, was not fazed at all by Schrobilgen’s absence. Schrobilgen was at the meet, training and checking out the Niles West course, where the sectional championship will be held in four weeks. They had a short, friendly conversation, in fact.
After winning the race Keelan went off happily for an interview with Bob Geiger, covering the meet for DyestatIL/ESPNHS. He even had some fun with the interview. When Geiger asked him about the upcoming Chicago Catholic League meet, where Keelan will face Loyola rivals Todd Ford and William Hague, Keelan acknowledged the rivalry between Ignatius and Loyola on the cross country course. But, Keelan said, “The real rivalry is between Ignatius and Fenwick in the ultimate frisbee match after the cross country meet.” Ignatius hoped for a better outcome in a planned rematch, Keelan explained, after Fenwick defeated Keelan’s team easily when they played at the Fenwick-Ignatius Invitational two weeks ago.
Realistically, DyestatIL/ESPNHS probably cannot confirm the participation of every runner, even every prominent runner, in every race that it previews. Injuries and illnesses often keep runners out of races at the last minute. But Schrobilgen is ranked as the state’s top runner, and perhaps DyestatIL/ESPNHS could be expected to know his race schedule—and whether he actually even plans on running in a particular race—before it writes that it is so.
There have been other small issues in terms of journalistic practice that have come up for me as I’ve watched the development of the web site. In June, for example, when DyestatIL/ESPNHS published an article on the change in the IHSA multiplier system, granting automatic waivers to most schools in most sports, the byline on the article was “Mike Newman & Bob Geiger, Dyestat IL.” But that article included a quote from Geiger himself. Geiger, the editor of the web site, has been quoted in other articles, as well. The article on the changes in the IHSA classification system was a good one, and it was arguably so comprehensive in its coverage of the issues that after a short flurry of interest, no one else on the tracktalk.net or DystatIL forum boards or anywhere else had a whole lot more to say about it. But quoting yourself or a fellow editor at your publication is a journalistic gaffe that detracts from the article, at least for me. In the future, when DyestatIL needs to interview a coach, it should interview a coach who is not part of their own editorial staff. If the editors have something that they want to say themselves, they should write an editorial.
Virtually all high school cross country coaches, in fact, know what it means to have a day job. No one I know coaches high school track and cross country as our only job—although I think many of us could probably fill our day doing so, and happily so. This summer, talking with a friend who gave up on teaching and coaching in part because he felt he could not do either of them well enough given the time required and the time available, he asked me how I managed to teach English and coach—while also being a parent and a husband, too. Well, I told my friend, I cut some corners and don’t do any of it as well I would like to do it, really. But I work hard and do my best, and I hope that is good enough.
And now I am also writing a blog, too. Undoubtedly there are places where I fall short as a blogger and erstwhile citizen journalist, as well.
I suspect the staff members at DyestatIL/ESPNHS are stretched pretty thin, too. They have day jobs, like most of us, and on top of that, Jones and Geiger work as coaches, as well.
Jones and Geiger, now with Newman’s help, have created a great resource in terms of the results and compilations of results that the site provides. The journalistic forays into reporting on big events and important issues adds a lot to the promotion of our sport and its athletes, as well. That success and the site’s value as a resource, however, arguably ups the ante in terms of what might be expected. This is just a critique suggesting that the site’s editors could tighten a few journalistic nuts and bolts here and there to become an even better resource for the coaches and athletes they want to serve.
And there is probably some need for coaches to think about how we use the information the DyestatIl folks provide us, as well.