On Thursday May 17, our Saint Ignatius boys track team won its first ever Illinois High School Association sectional championship, scoring 98 points to defeat Chicago Catholic League rival Brother Rice (87) and Chicago Public League champion Whitney Young (81). The meet was held at Concordia University’s great track facility in River Forest.
The team championship is not the focus of the meet; rather, the meet is where Illinois high school track and field athletes qualify for the state championships next week in Charleston at Eastern Illinois University. The top two finishers at the 11 sectionals around the state qualify, and then additional athletes can go to the state meet by meeting pre-set qualifying standards. Our athletes qualified for the state championships in the 4×800 relay and in five individual events—two qualifiers in the 1600, and then one in the pole vault, the 3200-meter run, the 110-meter hurdles, and the 300-meter hurdles.
The sectional meet was a day of great triumph for our team—and a little bit of heartbreak.
Our sophomore hurdler Conor Dunham won two events, setting a school record in the 110-meter high hurdles (15.05 seconds) and running a personal best in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles (38.99). Dunham was sectional champion last year in the 300s as a freshman, as well. His previous best in the 300s was a hand-timed 40.0, the equivalent of 40.24 when converted to the fully automatic timing equivalent, so his 38.99 was a personal best by over a second. We had told Dunham leading up to the meet that he was due for a big improvement, because he had been running in the 40s for the entire season without cracking that barrier. We even joked that he was going to skip the 39s entirely and go right to the 38s. He did it.
Junior Jack Keelan won the 3200 meter run (9 minutes and 18.65 seconds) and 1600 (4:23.65). At the state meet next week, Keelan, who ran a personal best time of 8:55.96 back in April at the Arcadia Invitational, will be one of favorites in the 3200. He ran both races conservatively, essentially shepherding our second runners in each race, senior Patrick Santino in the 3200 and sophomore Chris Korabik in the 1600, through the first half of their races.
In the 1600, Korabik followed Keelan to a personal best 4:28.17 for second place and a qualifying spot in the state meet. Keelan and Korabik ran first and second virtually from start to finish, passing the 400 in 66.5, the 800 in 2:15, and the 1200 in 3:22. Keelan moved on his own from there, finishing with a 61-second final lap. Korabik faced a challenge from Brother Rice senior Dan Caddigan, who moved to his shoulder several times in the last lap—only to have Korabik accelerate each time and then hold him off all the way to the finish. (For Caddigan, as it turned out, it was his second disappointment of the day—more on that below.)
But the outcome for Santino was not as good. Whitney Young senior Eric Shan shadowed Santino throughout the race, as the three runners pulled away from the pack and passed through the 1600 in 4:42. Keelan moved out on his own with two laps left in the race, and Santino and Shan battled for the second place qualifying spot. Shan passed Santino, then Santino passed Shan, then Shan took over for the final lap—and Santino could not pass him, missing second place by 7/10ths of a second. In our biggest disappointment of the day, Santino’s time of 9:29.64 also missed the automatic qualifying time for the state meet by 6/10ths of a second . Last year Santino finished fourth in the sectional, running 9:29.62—less than 6/10ths off the 9:29.04 qualifying mark. Over two years Santino missed qualifying twice by just over one second total.
The good news is that Santino will run in the state meet next week on our 4×800 relay team. But there is a story there, maybe the story of the day.
Junior Elliot Gibson won the pole vault (12 feet even) to qualify for the state meet, and he placed 3rd in the 300 hurdles (41.69), missing the standard but giving us important points in the team championship. But Gibson’s biggest contribution of the day for the team was probably in the 4×800 relay, which he ran moments after winning the pole vault.
In a decision that turned out to be a smart one, but just barely, we ran senior Peter Devitt in that relay instead of Korabik, saving Korabik for the 1600. Devitt ran an excellent time of 9:53 for 3200 meters at our CCL Championship last week; he has a personal best of 2:06 for 800 meters. It was asking a lot of Devitt to take on the pressure of the sectional in a race that was not his best event.
The seed times put us on top of the race with an 8:15, and we had beaten the second-seeded team Brother Rice at the CCL meet the week before by about a second. Whitney Young had the third seed time of 8:20, a seemingly comfortable margin of error. But it wasn’t.
Senior Mike Tonner, our team co-captain and the only member of the 4×800 team to return from last year’s state qualifying team, led off on the first leg in 2:03.5, taking the lead over the last 300 meters and giving the baton to Devitt. So far so good. But Whitney Young ran one of their best runners, Logan Means, in the second spot, and he quickly took a lead that they would hold to the end of the race. Devitt, meanwhile, struggled a little bit, running 2:07.4 and handing off the baton in fourth place to sophomore Taylor Dugas. Dugas ran hard—too hard, really, for the first 400 meters—to move into third place right behind Brother Rice. But the pace was too fast—56 seconds for the first 400—and he lost some ground over the second 400, running 2:02.5.
Gibson got the baton a couple seconds behind Brother Rice’s Caddigan, at that point running his first event of the day. Gibson’s best time for 800 meters was 2:05; Caddigan, I am pretty sure, has run 2:00 flat. Gibson has a tendency to run too hard early in races in a go-for-broke approach, and then he struggles at the end. He caught Caddigan quickly in the first 100 meters, and I yelled as loudly as I could, “Now just sit there and wait!” He did so. With Whitney Young far ahead, Gibson went through 400 meters in 59 seconds just behind Caddigan. On the back stretch Gibson moved into the lead with 300 meters to go.
With 150 meters to go Caddigan moved to take back the lead, and then Gibson drew even again on the straightaway as the two of them ran virtually side by side, step for step, all the way to the finish. It was an amazing and courageous effort by both runners. Caddigan seemed to gain a slight lead 50 meters from the finish. But a step from the finish he fell; he actually might have tripped Gibson, as well, who stumbled but kept his feet to cross the line before falling. Caddigan’s baton crossed the line first, but Gibson’s chest crossed ahead of Caddigan’s. It was literally a photo finish on the FAT camera, maybe the closest of the day, including sprint races. The final times were 8:14.95 for Ignatius and 8:14.98 for Brother Rice, and Ignatius was the second qualifier. Gibson had run 2:00.8.
So we were 3/100ths of a second from being bad coaches who had put our runner Peter Devitt in a position to fail. Thanks to Gibson, we were smart coaches who put Chris Korabik in a position to make us even smarter. Clearly, however, we had cut the margin too closely—a lesson to be remembered.
Third place is the hardest place to finish at the sectional meet. In addition to Santino’s third, senior Kyle Kelley-Carter also placed third in the pole vault (11-06). He tied the second place finisher, senior Sam Jaros from Brother Rice, on height, as both cleared 11-06 on their second attempts, and then both missed three times at 12-00. But Kelley-Carter had missed one time at a lower height, and that gave the tie-breaker to Jaros. It was another narrow miss for one of our seniors.
Sophomore Chris Hawkins was third in the 110-meter high hurdles, as well, running a personal best 15.67 seconds. Sophomore Taylor Dugas, after qualifying in the 4×800, also finished third in the 800 in 2:02.97. As sophomores, of course, they will get another chance next year with experience under their belts.
In the end we won the team title by scoring a lot of points in a few key events where we were strong—18 in the 1600, and then 16 in the 3200, the pole vault, and the two hurdles races. Junior Zeb McLaurin gave us some surprise points in the 100 meters with a fifth place finish in 11.56 seconds.
In my nine years of coaching, we have been second or third at sectionals a bunch of times. For a few years our teams would make a group visit during the week before the meet to the banners in the main gym at Saint Ignatius, which list team championships by sport; our track banner celebrates a 1933 national championship and many Chicago Catholic League titles, especially in the 1960s, but no sectional titles. We had some near misses in 2006, 2007, and 2008, when we finished with over 100 points in largely Chicago city-school sectionals, beaten by St. Patrick High School and then twice by Lane Tech.
For the last three years we have competed in a more suburban sectional which included Oak Park-River Forest High School, a pretty dominant team. This year, in fact, OPRF will be one of the favorites for the state championship next week in Charleston.
But we didn’t have to compete against OPRF this year because changes in the IHSA multiplier rule resulted in a shake-up of the schools involved in sectional championships, especially around the city of Chicago, where there are a number of Catholic and private schools subject to the multiplier. The IHSA also added an 11th sectional; there were ten last year. OPRF and Ignatius went into different sectionals.
But Thursday’s meet was actually a big experiment as we shared the track at Concordia with another IHSA sectional, run by OPRF, alternating events on the track. The advantages for the IHSA, it would seem, would be that two events in one location might be more efficient in various ways including costs, and the IHSA used only one team of officials for two meets. The IHSA officials crew is stretched thin at this time of year, with boys’ sectionals running at the same time as the girls’ state meet in Charleston. For the athletes and coaches, holding two sectionals together gave athletes plenty of time to rest between events–something that logically should result in better performances. The performances at our sectional were, in fact, very good.
OPRF dominated their side of the sectional, which they hosted, and we won ours in a much closer meet. They were clearly the best team on the track, and the second place team in their sectional, Lyons Township, was also very good. But our title still counts.
The IHSA organizes its state tournaments using a geography-first guiding principle. They want geographic representation at the state meet, so we compete in small geographic groups. Overall, as track and field team powers, the group of schools in our sectional probably ranks as one of the weakest of the eleven sectional groups in the state. We were all city schools—some from Chicago Public League, a few from our Chicago Catholic League. But again, our title still counts.
Winning a sectional, in any case, has another significance. We earned ourselves a multiplier for the next six years. We are a class 2A school according to Illinois enrollment classifications for track and field by straight enrollment of around 1,365 students, but we become 3A when the 1.6 multiplier gets applied.
One small detail that I failed to mention so far: We were the meet organizers for our sectional, and I was the meet manager.
Being the sectional host and meet manager has its stresses. It is our second year in a row in that role; last year was our first time as host. For a variety of reasons—among them, simply that it was our second time—it was much easier this year.
I did wake up a little bit earlier than usual that morning—about 4:30 am. I did some work putting final touches on the exam that my teaching colleague Josh Morrow was going to give my classes that day when I was gone. Teaching English, of course, is my real job, after all. Then I went for 5.5 mile run at 5:30 am, knowing I would not want to try and get a run in when I got home at 8:00 pm that day. Maybe the run helped smooth me out for the rest of the day.
At 9:00 am when my assistant coach who was supposed to ride the bus to the meet with the boys could not do so because of an emergency, I was a little bit stressed. We had to load the bus with all the things from my car, which I had intended to drive to the meet. As we drove to Oak Park, I repeatedly went over a mental checklist, sure that we had left something in the car. But we didn’t forget anything.
I even remembered to bring my lunch, which I ate at around 11:00 just as the field events got underway. As the day went on, I had the presence of mind to put sunscreen on at least four times. I hydrated well with water and Gatorade that I had supplied for coaches. In other words, things didn’t weigh too heavily.
I remember being a lot more frazzled as meet manager the year before.
The double sectional arrangement made things a lot easier for me, in particular, because the OPRF Coach Tim Hasso had taken the lead and done most of the work putting the meet together. He hired Lorette Cherry, the Illinois USATF secretary and head of an FAT timing company, to time the meet, and she did a lot more in terms of services than our company last year. For example, I went home from the meet last year and then spent another hour at least typing in the results to the IHSA web site, for posting there. Cherry did that job for me after the meet.
Splitting the job between two schools and two coaches, of course, also simply meant that there were two extra hands on the steering wheel, and two more hands to do things that needed to be done. So at various times, one of us could take a hand, even two hands, off the wheel.
Whereas last year I remember spending a lot of the meet managing the meet, this year I felt that I actually did a lot of coaching.
I was certainly glad that I was in the right position to give Elliot Gibson his instructions in the 4×800 relay.
Finally, it is worth noting that the reaction of our boys to their championship was actually pretty subdued. It was really rather businesslike.
After we scored the meet according to the seeds on Wednesday, I had told them that we were the favorites as we reviewed the meet event by event in a power point in my classroom, looking at the places we could score points and qualify for the state meet. If we could score 100 points, I told them, we should win—and we just about did that. Just do what you know how to do and what you can do, we told them, and we win.
With a few bumps along the way, they did that.
They celebrated a lot more when we won the CCL indoor championship last March. Our younger athletes had even celebrated more when they won the CCL Frosh Soph championship two weeks ago.
Maybe the most telling example of how the boys felt came from freshman Andy Weber, our future 3200-meter star who ran 10:11 this spring. When I discussed giving our extra boys jobs at the meet to help us out, he volunteered to lead a documentary film crew effort to record it. It would be good to have a film about the first ever championship, he told me, making his pitch the week before the meet. Yes, that was little bit cocky.
We will hope for more success next week—and more next year, since this is such a young team.
You can find media coverage of the meet here: