Comeback Kids

Jack Keelan wins the 1600-meter run at the ICOPS Invitational, running the fastest time in the state of Illinois this year, 4:17.03. He won last year in 4:22. Photo by Steve Bugarin.

Patrick Santino runs 9:33.90, the sixth fastest time this year in Illinois, to place third in the 3200-meter run at the ICOPS Invitational on Sunday, March 4. Photo by Bugarin.

On Saturday, March 17, our Saint Ignatius boys track team competes for the Chicago Catholic League Indoor Track Championship.  For the first time, really, in my nine years of coaching, our team has a chance to win the meet.

We began the season with hopes that our team would be a strong one.  But our season built a little bit slowly, in part because some of the big contributors are just sophomores, and it took them a little while to grow into the role of big contributors.

Our meet on Sunday, March 4, at the ICOPS Invitational was a big day for our Saint Ignatius boys track team—and for me as a coach—because we showed serious signs that our team was coming of age, so to speak.

The ICOPS Invitational– the acronym means Interscholastic Council of Private Schools—has been organized for all nine years of my coaching career at Ignatius by St. Patrick High School of Chicago.  It takes place at the 200-meter indoor track at Lewis University in Romeoville.  It used to be called the Chicagoland Catholic Schools Invitational, and virtually all of the teams at the meet now are still Catholic school teams— from our Chicago Catholic League conference, as well as from the East Suburban League conference of Catholic schools.  The meet is held on this particular Sunday every year , presumably, because that is the date each year when the facility at Lewis University is available.

It has sometimes raised eyebrows with parents and others when they learn for the first time that all these Catholic schools are gathering to race on a Sunday.  But the fun detail and interesting answer for those eyebrows is that before the meet we actually have a Catholic mass right in the center of the track.

It is a limited entry, even elite meet, and so we bring a smallish crew of our top varsity athletes only—about fifteen boys last Sunday.  With the mass and the top competition—our first chance to really face our main rivals—the meet marks a special day each year for our team.  After a couple months of training since mid-January, we often take big steps in terms of performances at this meet, and we start to see what kind of team we will be.  It is the day each year when we become a serious team.  We make a particular point at the mass on the track, during the sharing of the peace, that each member of our team shake hands.

With so much time lately between posts on this blog, I have presumably lost whatever small and regular readership that had been built.  But I have, in fact, heard from at least one reader over these months with a request that I finish some of the story lines begun last fall when I blogged about our cross country season.  This blog post will finish that story—and, I hope, start a new one for our track season.

That cross country season, which now seems a long time ago, had begun with big hopes but finished in some disappointment—including the tough ending to our season at the Niles West Sectional at the end of October.  To recap quickly:  We began the season with expectations of a state-qualifying and conference champion caliber team built around two strong runners with perfectly reasonable all-state aspirations, senior Patrick Santino who had run 9:29 for 3200 meters in the spring and junior Jack Keelan who was the sixth returning finisher from the 2010 state championship.   In August, the first blow came as Santino was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot; he returned for the last month of the season, but he was not in top form after eight weeks off.
After a good second place finish at the CCL conference meet, the team failed to qualify for the Illinois High School Association championship meet.  But, more painfully, Keelan had a sub-par race at the sectional and did not qualify for that meet even as an individual–after having been touted all fall as at least a dark horse candidate to win the state championship race.

There is also a short post season recap for a much better ending to that story.  We all had a few down days after that sectional race.  But the boys in fact bounced back quickly and positively as they organized and practiced on their own and travelled to Terra Haute, Indiana, and the cross country facility there for the Nike Midwest National Cross Country qualifier on Sunday, November 13, 2011.  They had a great time with a parent-supervised night at a local hotel, and although I felt a little bit left out, I did travel to the meet to watch as a spectator.  IHSA rules prohibit coaches from coaching after the Illinois state cross country meet.  And the team also had good results, placing 27th out of 38 teams, even though they were missing one of our top seniors.  Most importantly, perhaps, Keelan had a strong race, running right at the front until the lead pack disintegrated with a mile to go as race winner and eventual national runner-up Futsum Zeinasellassie unleashed a powerful finishing drive.  Keelan fought with the pack to the finish, placing 15th overall.  Among the runners who ran at NXN and at the IHSA AAA state championship, only five finishers from the AAA race beat Keelan.

I really follow the rules during our between season breaks, and although I had a sense that Keelan, Santino, and most of our top boys had continued training through November and December, I did not prescribe a single workout for them until our first practice of the 2012 spring track season on Tuesday, January 17.  Like many programs, the first weeks of our winter training amount pretty much amounts simply to orders every day that the boys go out for a run every day–in the snow, in the cold, on the ice-covered sidewalks.  In our case, it is a little bit more specific:  Run down Roosevelt Road two miles to the Lake Michigan bike path.  Then one day the boys run north—and the next they run south.  My assistant coach Steven Bugarin leads the way each day.

As it turned out, of course, it was an amazingly mild winter, and our boys really did put in a lot of fast miles on the lake path, which was seldom covered by snow or ice.

We ran some meets in February.  Keelan and Santino, in particular, showed signs that they had used the time between seasons to grow stronger.

Under Steve Bugarin’s supervision, the 40 or so distance boys pretty much take care of themselves, training wise.  I focused my attention on working with  our young sprinters and jumpers.  We have no indoor track facility at Ignatius.  The mild winter did give us more opportunities than usual to run with our sprinter boys outside.  There were still many sessions running up and down stairs and doing drills in carpeted school hallways.  Even with the mild winter, the sand in our outdoor long jump pits was frozen solid like any other winter.  We practiced the horizontal jumps by jumping into the high jump mats in a gym.

We had some good early season results, but nothing really to write home about.

Then, at the ICOPS meet, things changed dramatically.

First, to open the meet, our 4×800 meter relay competed well and finished fitth, scoring four points.

Conor Dunham was second in the 55-meter hurdles, running a personal best time of 8.01 seconds. Photo by Bugarin.

We have a great group of young hurdlers, including Conor Dunham, who won the sectional 300-meter hurdles last spring as a freshman.  At ICOPS, both Dunham and another sophomore, Chris Hawkins, qualified for the final of the 55 meter high hurdles; Dunham, surprisingly, was the top qualifier.  Early in the meet, Dunham finished second and Hawkins fourth in the hurdles final—14 more points.  Hawkins, who did not do a field event as a freshman, had also finished sixth in the long jump—three more points.

A few moments before, Patrick Santino had finished third in the 3200 meter run with a time of 9:33.90, his second fastest time ever and his best ever indoors.  It still stands as the sixth fastest time so far this year in Illinois.  In terms of the meet, that’s six more points.

When they read the meet score after four events, Ignatius, to our genuine surprise, was in the lead with 27 points.

We did not win the meet, finally.  Providence Catholic, a Chicago Catholic League rival, eventually won with 86 points to our 68.  But second place was our team’s highest finish at this meet  in my nine years as coach.

We had other point scorers, obviously.  Our 400-meter runners, juniors Zeb McLaurin (53.63) and Elliot Gibson (54.37) placed fifth and seventh.  Junior Andrew Reardon was fifth in the 800 in 2:05.05, a season best.  We got a few more points in the triple jump (Hawkins again) and pole vault (Gibson), as well as the 4×200 relay (fifth, for four points).

But everyone left the meet talking about Jack Keelan’s race in the 1600.  The previous week he had run a remarkable 4:24 for 1600 at a Friday night meet hosted by the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools on the University of Chicago’s 200-meter indoor track.  Keelan had run the first 800 meters easily, running behind the leaders, in 2 minutes and 18 seconds.  He ran the second 800 meters in 2:06.

We figured we should follow a similar plan at the ICOPS race.  We hoped someone else would take the race out at a legitimate pace for the first few laps, while Keelan sat behind.  Then he would pounce.

Loyola Academy’s Todd Ford, who had beaten Keelan at the CCL cross country championship in October, did exactly as Keelan had hoped, leading the race through three 200-meter laps at an honest pace of 33 seconds per lap.   But after three laps, Keelan had had enough.  He took the lead and came through 800 meters in 2:11.  The race plan from there was simply to try and run each lap a little bit faster.

He ran his last half mile, once again, in 2:06.  His finishing time of 4:17.03 set a new meet record, beating Loyola Academy graduate Nico Composto’s  mark of 4:20.63 from two years ago.  It was also the fastest 1600-meter time run so far this year in Illinois. (For another account of the race, read Dyestat/ESPN High School‘s report:  Keelan Rules ICOPS Invitational 1600 with Illinois #1 time.)

Zeb McLaurin ran the anchor for our 4x400 relay at ICOPS. He took the lead after the first 200--and he wouldn't let it go. Photo by Bugarin.

No one else gave great notice that our 4×400 team, running in the second to last heat, won the meet’s final event by narrowly beating second-place Providence (3:35.28)  in that same heat with a time of 3:35.08.  On our team, Gibson, McLaurin, Reardon, and Dunham had been under a little bit of team pressure because Keelan had politely asked them for a chance to run again, just minutes after his mile triumph.  None of them would give up the chance to run with the baton in the meet’s final event—and after they won, Keelan was happy to congratulate them.

In the two weeks since the ICOPS meet, our team has been thinking seriously about winning the Chicago Catholic School meet this weekend, where Providence will be the obvious favorite.  We have made some strategy and line up decisions that we think give us a chance to win the meet.  Among those decisions, Jack Keelan will run in three events (3200, 800, and 4×400), not just one.  Patrick Santino will double back in the 1600 after the 3200, as well.

As we thought at the beginning of our 2011 cross country season, they are two of the top runners in the state of Illinois this year.  They did not have the opportunity to show their best during cross country season.  But we expect that people will take more notice of them as they lead our team during this track season.

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