Saturday was our opening track meet of the 2012 season, our annual opening meet visit to Evanston High School’s vintage indoor track. We have been practicing for three weeks.
It is no coincidence that I have not made a blog post in about three weeks. It has been an adjustment—really, it requires lots of adjustments—getting back into the coaching regimen.
Our meet Saturday was lots of fun, and much less stressful for me than what I remember from other years. I have a wonderful coaching staff, with two new additions. Ike Ofor was a four-year state qualifier in the triple jump when I coached him here at Saint Ignatius from 2004 until 2008. He is studying exercise physiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and he decided that helping out with our track program would be a great way to try out his new training skills. He is working with our sprinters and our jumpers. Patrick Boyle helped us out informally last spring with some pole vault advice. His two sons, Emmet and Tom, started with our team last year, and Patrick started hanging around. It turned out that he pole vaulted in high school and college, and his twin brother, Mike, had worked a long term as a pole vault coach at Fremd High School. Boyle has offered his services on a more programmatic basis this year. When the weather warmed up to spring time temperatures at the end of January, we pulled our pole vault pits out of the shed, and so we have already been vaulting into a pit with our new coach for a week. I cannot remember ever pole vaulting in January—or the last time we had a pole vault coach in place working with the boys so early in the season.
At the meet Saturday, I was able to delegate confidently big jobs to my new coaches—making sure the sprinters, jumpers, and pole vaulters were ready to compete and found their way to the starting line.
Boyle and Ofor join Steve Bugarin, who has been working with our distance runners in cross country and track now for three years. Bugarin is a professional photographer, and in addition to his coaching, he takes the photos of the boys that turn up on these blog pages. He was particularly busy on Saturday, trying to make sure he got photos of the many new faces on our team. We post them to a team site on Shutterfly, where boys and parents can view them and even purchase prints.
The first meet is always a key moment in assessing the prospects for the season ahead. My first surprise that way came when I sat down late in the week to prepare the lineup for this very informal meet. With sixty or more boys at practice regularly, we have a healthy group in terms of size, and I have been vaguely aware already that despite those good numbers we do lack numbers in our senior class—with only eight seniors on the team. It wasn’t until I started assigning boys to events that I realized fully how small our varsity team is with so few seniors. We did not have enough athletes to fill all the varsity events, in fact.
On the flip side, of course, that means we have a lot of freshmen and sophomores. Even missing quite a few younger runners who were attending a Model United Nations conference on Saturday, we had more than enough runners to fill all the events.
We won the Chicago Catholic League Freshman and Sophomore Track Championship meet easily last spring. A frosh soph championship raises expectations for the varsity team in following years, and in my mind I was expecting our varsity team to be stronger this year. We’re facing a strange circumstance as that small senior class. What’s more, that strong frosh soph team last year featured a particularly strong group of freshmen contributors.
In fact, our performance on Saturday gives us a lot of cause for optimism. We may not have numbers to fill all the events, and so we will not be a strong team in meets that require us to score in lots of events—smaller meets, even dual meets, for example. But our top performers are really very good, and in bigger meets we should score points even against top competition.
What’s more, our small numbers of varsity runners in our daily practice mob translate into big numbers of freshmen and sophomores—approximately a 20 to 40 split. Our sophomore class is very good in terms of quality and numbers. Our new freshman look like they can be very good, too.
At Evanston, our varsity runners were very good at the events we targeted. We won the 4×880 relay easily, using our top distance runners senior Patrick Santino and junior Jack Keelan. Then Keelan and Santino came back and finished one-two in the 880 open race. On the tight 176-yard Evanston track, their early season times of 2:03 and 2:05 for Keelan and 2:08 and 2:09 for Santino were excellent. Keelan and Santino both rank among the top twenty returning runners in the state for 3200 meters this year, and this early show of speed suggests they can improve on last year. We also ran well in the 4×440 relay, which featured all juniors–our fast sprinters, Andrew Eady and Zeb McLaurin, along with two middle distance runners, Andrew Reardon and Elliot Gibson. The team ran neck and neck with Brother Rice for the first three legs, until Gibson ran away on the anchor. Their time was a good one, again, especially for an early season meet on a small track—3:47.5, with splits of 57.9 (Eady), 56.1 (McLaurin), 56.6 (Reardon), and 56.9 (Gibson). We will expect this group to run 3:25 when we get them outdoors at the end of the season.
But of course it is probably wrong to be looking so far ahead after just one meet. Among other things, to do so also means you are not really enjoying the meet itself or appreciating the moments at hand.
And in fact, for most of our boys, this first meet was just about having fun. For many of our younger runners it was their first race in high school—and perhaps their first time wearing a Saint Ignatius uniform. This particular meet is really almost a practice meet. There are no pre-entries. Some boys wanted to change the events I had assigned them. Most of the time I assented, although I had to warn them that we cannot always be so flexible. There are always situations in which the boys tell me, “Leo says he will switch with me so that I can run the 50.” I explain that Leo doesn’t have to switch; both boys can run the 50. First time distance runners start their races too fast—no matter how insistently we tell them not to do so. My very good freshman distance runner, Andy Weber, ran the first 440 of his two mile race in about 70 seconds; he was supposed to run the race in around 11:00, which is about 83 seconds a lap. He recovered from his over-enthusiasm to run about 11:12—and he wants to run the event again next week.
We had to talk with a little bit of toughness to some of the younger boys after they gave up in the middle of a race—or after they walked in the last few steps instead of running through the finish line. In the frosh soph 4×440 relay, our number two runner, Nick Beltran, found himself matched up against a very good runner from Brother Rice. Beltran found himself getting beaten badly by a faster runner, and we could see his discouragement as he fell farther behind. He jogged in the last meters before passing the baton. His teammates, sophomores Emmet Boyle and Conor Dunham, then ran hard to catch up—and Dunham won the race in the final steps. Relays are a team event, we made sure Beltran understood, and you never give up like that no matter how far behind you are.
For the new runners, they also learn about what we sometimes call “camping.” Boys must take their races seriously. They need to warm up, and they need to cool down. But between races, or after they race, they camp. Some do homework. Many listen to their Ipods. But they also talk and play—and bond. Starting with this very first meet, boys begin to make the new friendships—or continue the friendships—that will last sometimes for four full years of track meets.
The first meet is about coaches getting to know each other, and teammates getting to know each other. And coaches have to get to know the athletes in the new competition setting, which is different from practice. Our first meet at Evanston is a great place to start the process of team building that will last the season.