Walking my children around Three Oaks, Michigan, for Halloween late on Saturday afternoon, it was hard not to be thinking about our tough time earlier in the day at the Niles West IHSA Sectional. Even though we are “just” working with kids and it is “just” high school cross country, it is hard not to bring a job home with you sometimes.
If you have been following this blog because you are following our Saint Ignatius team, I’m afraid it was not a good news day. In fact, the news is (almost) as frightful and disappointing as sports news can get—not including serious injuries, of course.
We began the day on Saturday, October 29th at Niles West High School quite hopefully, in the truest sense. We were racing in what was generally considered to be the hardest of five sectional championship meets in the state of Illinois. Five teams qualify for the state championship next week at Detweiller Park in Peoria; the top seven individuals who do not qualify on a team also get an invitation to compete at the state meet.
Although our team has struggled a little bit this season, our analysis suggested we still had a chance at one of the top five spots–but we would have to run our best race of the season. Our boys have worked tremendously hard, harder than any team that I have ever coached. They are also the closest team I have ever coached in terms of their bond with each other. But we hadn’t quite been at full strength at any point this season. We also hadn’t run the big race that we thought we were capable of running as a team.
Early in the season we suffered a tough injury to one of our top runners, Patrick Santino, who had recovered and rejoined the team for the final month. Then, as we attempted to defend our regional championship title last week, Santino had what turned out to be strep throat and that means antibiotics, not a performance booster. Our number three runner, Peter Devitt, had seemed poised to run his big race—and then the week before the regional he missed a couple days of school and practice with a flu and a fever. He was too sick even to run the regional meet. But Santino and Devitt had both seemed better in the week before the sectional.
The back end of our lineup was a group of runners who had run 17 minutes for three miles last season, some of them closer to 18 minutes, but who would have to run closer to 16 minutes this season for the team to be successful. All these runners had a good start to the season—Mike Tonner ran 16:33, Clifford Vickrey 16:35, Chris Korabik 16:40, Taylor Dugas 16:45, and Tim Hatzopolous 16:50. We also added a freshman to the mix, Andy Weber, who ran 16:55. But after posting those first times, we had been waiting for another breakthrough from this group.
At the top of our lineup we had one of the top runners in Illinois, Jack Keelan, who had finished 12th at the state championship last year. He had raced at the front of the pack in some of the top early season meets—Woodruff on the Detweiller Park course in Peoria, where he was 4th, and at the Palatine Invite, where he was 3rd. He was posting times and results that were a big step faster than he had run last season.
As a rule it takes a score of around 150 points at the Niles West Sectional to qualify as the fifth team for the state meet. As we prepared for the 2011 race, we took aim at that goal with this plan: A low number at the front of the race from Keelan would require him to run around 15:00. Santino and Devitt would aim for a place around 30th, which would require them to run under 16:00. Then our back end runners would need to run 16:20 to finish around 50th place. The quality of the times and runners at our sectional was better this year, and we couldn’t be sure what it would take to qualify. But this would give us a shot.
As it turned out, our analysis was correct. But we could not quite execute the plan.
We had a good week of practice, an easy week, really, for most of the team, a little bit harder for Keelan. Saint Ignatius did not have school on Friday, and rather than bring the boys into the city for a short run and meeting, we held our last team practice on Thursday. We shared our plan and then watched something motivational that we watch from time to time as a team on video—the story of Steve Prefontaine’s race at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Prefontaine heroically runs to win that race against two kicker finishers, gold medalist Lasse Viren and silver medalist Mohamed Gammoudi, rather than run strategically for the bronze medal. He gets passed in the final meters of the race by bronze medalist Ian Stewart. We were planning a similar go-for-it and don’t look back strategy.
On Saturday, it was a perfect day in terms of weather, around 50 degrees and no wind, almost unheard of for this meet. The organizers at Niles West had made some extra efforts to widen narrow sections of the course and smooth out some of the many turns; they also redirected the course around a big mud pit that had slowed the runners at the Pat Savage Invite earlier in the month—a race that our Jack Keelan had won.
There was a small hiccup at the start of the race. A runner fell down after 50 meters, and the race starters fired a second gun to call the runners back for a second start. Our race plan had been to start aggressively for the first 100 meters to establish those race goal positions before settling into the race pace. Watching from a distance, it occurred to me that we hadn’t made arrangements for a second start. For physiological reasons, it is not really a strategy that works twice; I wanted to tell our boys to take it easier the second time, but, of course, couldn’t do so.
After the second clean start, we got our first clear look at the developing race picture at about a half mile. Keelan was up front with the race leaders—good. Santino came by in about 30th position—check. But there was no Peter Devitt with him. Devitt came by in around 70th place with Chris Korabik. Behind them a bit was Taylor Dugas and Clifford Vickrey. It would take a big effort for Devitt to get all the way up to Santino, and it seemed likely that he had not fully recovered from his illness of the week before. But there is always hope. Perhaps Korabik, a talented sophomore, could pull off that kind of effort?
I watch the races at Niles West from the south end of the baseball, softball, and soccer field complex that the runners circumnavigate three times. It is quieter there at the south end, with fewer spectators. I can see across to the far end of the field a quarter mile away to see at least the shape of the race as it develops. As the lead runners approached the one mile mark on the far west side of the field, Keelan was still in fifth position in a line of fast moving runners, with Malachy Schrobilgen of Oak Park-River Forest, Leland Later of New Trier, Todd Ford and William Hague of Loyola—the runners we expected to be there. I could see that they passed the mile mark in around 4:50. I could see Santino, looking to be in about the same spot, come through in around 5:00.
As the front runners ran around the south fields, the race took a clearer shape. Later was leading with Schrobilgen close behind, but they had separated from the second group of Ford, Hague, Keelan, and Pat Niyork from Willowbrook. Keelan passed what we consider to be the halfway mark in 7:20, running fifth. The race was fast up front.
Behind him, Santino held his spot at around number 30. But Korabik was now our number three runner in 75th, with Devitt falling behind him. Vickrey was just a few places behind Devitt. This would be our top five, it appeared, but instead of 160, our score looked to be closer to 260. Keelan and Santino would be racing for individual spots. The previous year the last spot had gone to the 26th place finisher.
The runners headed back into the north end of the course, with the big crowds chasing them from one side of the field across to the other, east to west.
As the leaders approached the two mile mark, I looked across the field to see Later and Schrobilgen, and then a group of three behind them. Something didn’t seem right. When they reappeared on my side of the field, it became clearer. The group of three chasers did not include Keelan. He had fallen back into a third group. He was at the front of that group, but the chasers behind him were charging hard in a long line. After the race, our girls coach Matt Haffner said he saw the moment when the race seemed to change for Keelan. At about a mile and three-quarters, Haffner said, “His posture just changed—you could see it.”
There is not much a coach can do to help his runners in the race. I yelled something like, “Big group behind you, Jack. Work hard through this tough part.”
I remember hearing Coach Kris Roof from Lane Tech talking to one of his assistants, “Timlin is too far back.” Roof’s team had beaten us convincingly at the regional meet the week before. As the 8th rated team in this race, they were fighting for one of the top five spots, like us. Perhaps, it occurred to me, he was assessing Timlin’s chances for an individual qualifying spot. Timlin was between Keelan and Santino.
With a half mile left in the race, Keelan was being passed by the pack that had been behind him. Santino came through running strong in 33rd place, as some runners seemed to be surging and others seemed to be falling back. Korabik was our number three, but still around 75th. Vickrey had passed Devitt, who was struggling, a few more places back. Taylor Dugas, our number six, was struggling back around 100th, and our freshman Andy Weber was racing hard a little bit farther back.
For the end of the race, I moved to the north end of the field, to a spot about 300 meters from the finish. The runners wind around the northwest corner of the field, then they follow a windy cart path into the Niles West stadium for a finish on the football field. I caught Keelan going by, but I had missed the first runners, so I did not know how many spots he had lost. Just ahead of him was Fenwick’s Ryan Clardy; last year Clardy had missed the last individual qualifier spot by one place. Korabik passed by, then Vickrey, then Devitt. Many runners were already in full sprint mode to the finish. Devitt seemed to respond with some acceleration when I yelled out his name. I saw Dugas and Weber go by, and then I headed into the stadium toward the crowd at the finish line.
We didn’t have a post finish plan, I realized. Last year we had lost track of all our runners after the race, as we anticipated disappointment after what had seemed to be a weak race; we were rewarded with good news when we finished fifth.
This year I worked harder to find our runners as they exited the scrum of coaches, parents, teammates, and runners behind the finish line. But first I saw Ryan Clardy, and his coach Dave Rill, talking. I went over to congratulate them, keeping an eye out for our runners. Clardy had clearly qualified this year. “How far was Jack behind me?” Clardy asked me right away with obvious concern; he had finished 11th overall. Keelan and Clardy are competitors, including (maybe especially) on the Frisbee pitch, but they are also friends; our two teams, in fact, are very friendly. Keelan was a few places behind Clardy when he passed me, I told them. He seemed to be talking to his own coach when Clardy said, “There were a bunch of individual guys right behind me.” He had been counting for himself.
That was our first moment of real worry.
We gathered our runners one by one. Keelan might have been the last one we found. Stick together, I told them. Support each other. Jack had a tough race. So did Peter. It was clearly something new for them to be in a position where Keelan was the runner the team needed to support.
It is a long walk from the stadium to the field house where most of the teams make their indoor camps. I trailed the boys. They walked and talked together in small bunches, but with some big spaces between the group. Lots of people, not even from our team, seemed to want to talk to Keelan. “They should leave Jack alone,” said Santino beside me. Santino knows about disappointment; last spring he ran 9:29 for 3200-meters at the sectional qualifying race for the state meet. He was the fastest non-qualifier in the state, missing the standard by tenths of a second.
Inside the field house I left the boys and went to the wall where results would be posted. They had come very quickly for the girls race. There were only a handful of us waiting when the boys results were posted.
It took only a quick look to see that in 16th place, Jack Keelan had missed an individual qualifying spot. The last one had gone to the 13th place finisher. Keelan had run faster, 15:31, than he had run the year before on basically the same course, when he was 10th in 15:36. But there had been an interesting combination of factors that made the individual qualifying race a real dogfight this year—including just a remarkable upgrade in the overall performance of all the runners. The year before, the last qualifier was the 26th finisher in 15:50. Keelan had missed out this year with a faster time and a better placement.
I didn’t get the full details, but I hurried back to our camp to be the first with the difficult news. Should I tell Keelan privately? I decided to gather the team, holding Keelan’s hand while I delivered disappointment. He seemed surprised–but not surprised. He knew his spot had been in jeopardy. He wasn’t interested in more details, just the basic news.
We shared a few words as a team about looking forward to running for the first time at the Nike Midwest meet in two weeks. We would be healthier then, I told them, and once again, maybe the big race we have been waiting for would come then.
In some conversation after our team meeting, our parents and athletes shared our disappointment. I had no answer except that it was obviously the wrong day for Keelan to have his only bad race of the season. He is not an excuse maker, and he insisted that he was feeling fine before the race. He did say that he known at about the half mile mark that he felt badly.
The disappointing result caused me a few moments of doubts about our go-for-it meet strategy, which had relied on Keelan scoring a low number. Racing at the front of the race, he had pushed himself beyond his limits that day, perhaps, in part for his teammates. Our plan had not been misguided. Two surprise teams had qualified—Lane Tech and Niles West. Three qualifying teams this year scored higher than we had scored last year when we qualified as a team. Our score this year was 280 points for 11th place: Keelan (15:31, 16th), Santino (33rd, 15:52), Korabik (70th, 16:26), Devitt (16:32, 80th), Vickrey (81st, 16:33), Dugas (16:47, 100th), Weber (17:03, 120th). With just a little bit stronger performance across the board, we would have been fighting for one of those qualifying team spots.
There had been another complication and disappointment developing at the meet that arguably even overshadowed Keelan’s disappointment as an individual favorite in the race who had not even qualified for the state final. Maine South was a meet favorite in the team competition, after they had won their tough regional the week before against New Trier, Loyola, and Niles North, where they ran remarkably well. They had not run as well in the sectional, but results were first posted this way: York 73 points, New Trier 110, Loyola 152, Niles West 162, Maine South 173, Lane Tech 173. Maine South appeared to get 5th place over Lane Tech based on the 6th runner tiebreaker, but under IHSA rules both teams would advance—6 teams instead of 5 to the state final, an outcome that makes everyone happy.
But not so fast: Neal Omar of Niles West, the surprise fourth place team, had fallen right as he was crossing the finish line. The posted results had been compiled based upon the chips attached to his shoes, and when those chips had crossed the electronic finish line pads. But according to the IHSA rules, the torso–not the feet with the chips–determine the official order of finish. Chip timing had placed Omar 23rd, as Zack Eckhart of Maine South and Chris Kelly from Loyola passed him while he was on the ground, apparently rolling over to get his body and his feet across the finish line and the timing mats. The race officials, Ron Campbell and Bill Drennan, determined that Omar’s torso had crossed the finish line ahead of Eckhart and Kelly, moving them back a spot. When Maine South’s score was adjusted, it put them a point behind Lane Tech, another surprise qualifier, now in 5th place position alone.
It was devastating news for Maine South—another team with some close friendship ties to our own. Long after virtually all the other teams had left the field house, the Maine South boys were still sitting in their camp, lined up against the field house wall, no doubt waiting some news of an appeal or reprieve. Mike Newman, reporting for the Illinois Dyestat/ESPN High School site on Sunday morning, suggested that some kind of an appeal might still be in process.
As disappointed as Jack Keelan and our Saint Ignatius team felt after the 2011 Niles West Sectional, I would not have changed places with the boys and coaches from Maine South.