Something to smile about

With a little bit more than a mile to go at the Peoria First to the Finish Invitational, Jack Keelan found himself alone at the front of the race–and smiling. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

I’ve been holding off on blogging about Jack Keelan, one of the preseason favorites to win the individual championship at the Illinois 3A cross country meet, or about our cross country team’s progress this season.

Our fifth place team finish—and Keelan’s individual win—in a field of forty-two teams at the First to the Finish Invitational in Peoria today finally gives me something to report.

But as a teaser to some inside information, let me note that Keelan did express some regrets after the race.  He sat for the first mile in 4:50 or so, running with challengers Joey Santillo of Minooka and Micah Beller of Niles North.  As he planned, he started to pull away as the runners ducked off the main course to run the “Triangle” at the back end of the Detweiller Park.  He came out of the Triangle with a 15 second lead, and when he made the turn to go up the hill along the west side of the course, a glance over his shoulder told him he was on his own.

He suddenly found himself smiling as he ran:  “I kept telling myself, you have to stop smiling.  But I couldn’t.”

If you know Keelan’s full cross country story, you will probably be able to forgive him for behavior that, as he himself admitted, steps a little bit over the line of pride.  He meant no disrespect, but he had earned himself a little bit of overdue cross country happiness.

Backtracking a bit:  We started practice on August 8, a full month ago now.  My impression was that about 10 of our 30 returning boys had done a good job with their training over the summer.  It is training that is unsupervised by their coaches; they do it on their own.  Our key team members, in fact, had very good summers.  Keelan ran between 50 and 60 miles a week starting at the end of June through our first August practice, with a visit to the Stanford University high school cross country camp.  Junior Chris Korabik, who ran 4:27 for 1600 meters as a sophomore in track, trained almost completely on his own, as did junior Taylor Dugas, a key member of our state qualifying 4×800 relay team; Dugas did attend the University of Wisconsin Camp of Champions with a group of seven other Ignatius boys.  Sophomore Andrew Weber, also tipped as a key member of our 2012 team after running 10:12 for 3200 meters as a freshman, had an outstanding summer of training—also on his own.

Cross country teams run seven, of course, and score five.  We had another group of varsity hopefuls who trained well this summer, including senior Tim Hatzopolous , who attended the Maine South High School camp, and another senior Ray Lewis, who helped bring the team together for the trip to Madison.  We were also hoping for good summers of improvement from two younger runners, sophomores Brian Santino and Joey Connelly; Joey attended the Charlie Kern camp in York.

But to continue developing as a cross country program, it is also important to recruit new freshmen.  We had a good turnout, even a week before the official start of school—ten or so in the first few days.  And they kept coming back to practice, which is a good sign.

Among that group was Dan Santino, Brian’s brother—and brother of our team captain last year, Patrick Santino.  Last spring, really as a part-time runner and part-time lacrosse player, Dan Santino won the Illinois elementary school 1600 meter title; this summer Santino gave up his lacrosse stick and started training as a runner full time.  He was our top finisher at the Wisconsin camp final run—and he ran a 4:45 mile in a summer track meet.  Santino right away seemed like our best candidate for the number five hole.

For our top runners, the first weeks of practice are what we call Phase II workouts; lots of distance runs as we establish a practice routine, with one programmed workout each week of 200s and 400s at about mile race pace (lots of rest between).

We had some traditional team events on the weekends—our now annual trip to the New Buffalo, Michigan, area for a Saturday run, and our annual Bahai Temple run from Loyola University and Rogers Park north to Wilmette and back.  Team picnics follow both runs.

On Saturday, August 25 we held our first competition in Washington Park on the South Side.  We invited Jones College Prep, one of the state’s top 2A ranked teams, to join us in an event we call the Wolfpack Howl.  We break our team up into color teams—Maroon, Gold, Black, and White—and Jones does the same (White, Blue, and Grey).  Then our color teams race each other, not our school teams.  In fact, it was almost incidental to the boys on either team that there were two schools competing; the real bragging rights were between the color teams of each school.

And then, of course, there is the team picnic after the race.

We had requests for results from the meet.  But we rate the event more as a practice meet—and we kept the results to ourselves.  We did note in answer to a few queries that Keelan had won, a little bit faster than last year, with Jamison Dale of Jones a little bit closer than last year.  Jones beat us overall, but we held our own, we thought, against one of the best teams in the state.  Also, the big news for us was that our number two runner had been Dan Santino, the freshman.

After one more week of practice, we opened our competition season more formally on September 1 at the ICOPS Invitational.  It was our first time at Reed-Keppler Park, where Coach Bill Bickhart and Wheaton Academy played host for the meet.  In past years we have run at the Leavey Invitational in St. Charles, but when that meet cut the number of teams down to 15 or so, we got riffed.  ICOPS, although not as competitive a meet, was a good replacement, and maybe it was better to start with a meet where our runners, especially our younger runners, could have success.

Results from previous years suggested that our team should win, but Aurora Central Catholic was ranked in 2A.

We stuck to a “team” race plan.  Keelan ran with our pack for two miles; we hoped to keep all seven together as long as possible, so they started a little bit slowly to keep the group together.  When ACC had three runners ten meters ahead up in front for the first mile as our pack ran 5:20, we were all a little bit nervous.   But Keelan moved quickly to the lead after four of our runners worked towards the front of the race and came through two miles together in 10:40.  He went on to win in 15:31, with Santino (16:04)  fourth, Korabik (16:04) fifth , and Weber (16:12) eighth—personal bests for all three, in their first race of the season, on a course measured just over three miles (3.02).  Senior Neil Browne was a little bit of a surprise as our fifth man, but it was a big gap back to his finishing time of 17:09; junior Taylor Dugas had been sick all week with a sore throat and cough, and he sat out.

The race was a big step for us, putting three guys behind Keelan at 16:00 minutes.  Here’s my quote for our school athletics web page report:  “It is early in the season, but Chris Korabik and Andy Weber showed today that they have worked hard for a year and they will take a place in the front pack of the Chicago Catholic League.  Dan Santino is probably one of the best freshmen in the state,” said Coach Ed Ernst.  “And Keelan, of course, is one of the best runners in the state.   It sure looks like we have the makings of a serious team that can contend for the league title and a place in the state meet.”

Our race today, it would seem, made that same case more clearly.

Our pre-race conversations noted that twelve teams in the First to the Finish meet were teams ranked on one list or another.  We weren’t ranked anywhere.   So if we beat any of those teams, it would mean something.

We would have Dugas back, if not at full strength, and we would follow the same pack strategy—minus Keelan, who would run to win.

Keelan and I had discussed a variety of possible race plans, all with different pluses and minuses.  I gave him four options:  1) In a “Prefontaine” front-runner strategy he would blast out in the first mile and test himself at his limits; he would then get some idea where those limits might be this season?    2)  With a “Mo Farah” strategy, he would sit in the lead group and cover any serious moves by other runners.  Then he would kick the last 400 meters, really just to show himself that he could win a race this way.  3)  The classic Detweiller strategy would put him near the lead when the runners went into the Triangle after the first mile.  He would come out of the Triangle in the lead—perhaps on his own, if he felt ready to make a really strong move.  4)  Finally, he could sit for two miles, and then move in the last mile with a “wind-it-up until no one can stay with you” plan.  We know, from last track season, that Keelan can run the last half mile of this kind of race in as fast as 2:05.  We know there aren’t many runners in the state who can do that.

Keelan, as it turns out, had his own idea:  He wanted to sit for the first mile, then go.

In practice, it really worked out like the classic Detweiller race plan.  He went through the mile with Santillo and Beller beside him.  They followed him a few steps behind into the Triangle.  He came out of the Triangle with a lead of at least 50 meters, and the race was pretty much over.  Keelan was 9:40 at two miles, a little bit slower than last year when he came through in 9:36.  Last year, however, Keelan finished in 14:48—basically cracking in the last mile to run 5:12 as New Trier’s Leland Later, Buffalo Grove’s Jereme Atchison, and Edwardsville’s Garrett Sweatt ran away from him.  This year, Keelan cruised home comfortably in 14:35.

That Peoria race last year was a little bit unsettling for Keelan, and perhaps he never really hit his stride or regained his full confidence last cross country season after that race.  He had some good results, like his third at the Palatine Invitational.  But at the Chicago Catholic League meet, where he was the defending champion, he was easily outkicked by Loyola’s Todd Ford.  And then at the IHSA 3a Sectional at Niles West the unthinkable happened; in his only really sub-par race of the year, the wrong race at the wrong time, he finished sixteenth—only the ninth individual—and he did not even qualify for the state meet after finishing 12th there in 2010.  He did rebound to run well at the Nike X-country Nationals regional qualifier in Terre Haute, where he ran with the top finishers from the Illinois state meets and finished 15th overall.

I have written since that Keelan deserves the title of comeback kid after the way he ran in his track season, finishing second in the 3200 and then seventh in the 1600 at the state meet and running personal bests of 4:09 for 1600 and 8:55 for 3200 in other races.  In doing so, he has demonstrated that elusive quality that psychologists today are calling “grit.”

But Saturday in Peoria was his first high-profile cross country race in Illinois since his sectionals disappointment last year.  After his success on the track, he also ran with the pressure of being the odds-on favorite to win the state meet individual title this year—although O’Fallon’s Alex Riba, second in the 3A state cross country race last year and apparently running very well already this year, will undoubtedly have something to say about that, among others.

And if you take all that into account, you can forgive Keelan smiling when he realized that he could win the race on Saturday.  When asked to explain after the race how he felt and why he was smiling, Keelan said he was just really, really happy when he realized that the race really was “going exactly according to plan.”

Meanwhile, his teammates had run extremely well behind him.  Keelan’s 14:35 was, in fact, a personal record at Detweiller and for three miles anywhere; he was 14:36 in 2010 at the state meet as a sophomore.  But Dan Santino, with his 15:33 and 30th place, Chris Korabik (15:35, 33rd), and Andy Weber (15:37, 38th) blew away their personal bests for three miles set just last week.  Dugas, who stayed with his teammates for the first half of the race, held on to run 16:35 for 172nd place in the field of 386—but that was in fact a personal best for him, as well.

The Wolfpack had surprisingly placed fifth overall with 266 points—earning a trophy and beating a bunch of teams ranked way above them.  Neuqua Valley won the race with 112 points, followed by Lyons Township (135), Highland Park (192), and Hinsdale Central (213).

The team has taken a big step toward one of our big goals this season: to send Jack Keelan down state with his team in tow to support him.  A big effort by Keelan at the state meet, if he runs as part of a team, would be a big effort for the team.

And a quick analysis of the results suggests the team might want to set our goals even higher.  Put Dugas with his pack-running teammates, where a healthy Dugas belongs, and the Wolfpack could have been second.

All teams at this stage of the season can make such optimistic projections.  Saturday’s First to the Finish Invite results were skewed a little bit by a number of runners missing for the ACT test administered that day.

But Jack Keelan really does have something to smile about, it would seem: his teammates.

Call one wolf, and you get the pack: The Wolfpack runs together at the ICOPS Invitational. Photo by Tim Keelan.


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Filed under coaching, cross country running, high school track and field, IHSA, running

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